Part One: The Practice Baby

Inspired by a photograph of a baby, Lisa Grunwald’s novel tells the story of Henry House. Henry arrives at Wilton College in Pennsylvania in 1946 as a “practice baby” provided by the local orphanage to be cared for by the Home Economics Department. The young co-eds, under the tutelage of the stern Martha Gaines, spend one-week shifts living in the Practice House learning to be mothers.

For nineteen years, Martha Gaines has taught childcare as an orderly and disciplined process; she does not buy into the baby-coddling theories of the popular Benjamin Spock. Martha’s life revolves around her work at Wilton. She has no family and her short marriage ended after a traumatic miscarriage.

Baby Henry, it turns out, is the illegitimate son of one of this year’s Practice House students, Betty Gardner. Betty also happens to be the daughter of the college president. Betty is married, and it is believed that her husband is a World War II soldier who is missing in action. When Betty discovers that her husband actually deserted, she moves to Australia to live with him. Taking advantage of the opportunity, the usually cold and distant Martha, who has become quite attached to little Henry, decides to raise him as her own when Betty leaves.

Part Two: We Come and Go

The following year brings a new baby and a new group of novice “mothers,” and Martha plans to focus her energies on raising Henry. But Henry seems to prefer being with the new practice girls, and he finds ways to lure them in to spending time with him instead of the new baby. At an age when Henry should be displaying signs of separation anxiety, he seems to thrive in the company of anyone other than his adoptive mother, Martha.

In nursery school, Henry befriends Mary Jane. When Henry pays too much attention to a new girl, Mary Jane protests and Henry impulsively lashes out and throws a wood block at her. The strike causes an eye injury that will require a permanent eye patch.

Betty returns when Henry is nine years old, and she tells him the truth about his birth. Henry is anxious to leave with Betty, but she is not ready. She promises to send for Henry as soon as she gets settled in New York. Henry retreats emotionally and feels betrayed by Martha’s lies.

In an attempt to escape Martha’s constant hovering, Henry spends time drawing on the walls inside his closet using the art kit Betty gave him. Henry also becomes more and more quiet, and in 1956, he stops speaking altogether to escape Martha’s neediness.

Part Three: Great Escapes

The authorities believe it is in Henry’s best interest to send him to a special-needs school, and Martha reluctantly agrees. At the Humphrey School, fourteen-year-old Henry is free of Martha’s constant hovering and thrives. He establishes a warm, family-like relationship with his art teacher, Charlie Falk, and his wife, Karen.

Henry also discovers...

(The entire section is 1211 words.)