Week-end Book Review: The Oldest House in the USA by Kat Aragon and Mary Jo Madrid

Sunday, December 16th, 2012

Kat Aragon, illustrated by Mary Jo Madrid,
The Oldest House in the USA/La casa mas antigua de los Estados Unidos
Lectura Books, 2012.

Ages: 6-8

Perhaps the best thing about The Oldest House in the USA, in my admittedly biased opinion, is that the author got it right: the oldest house in the USA is in Santa Fe, New Mexico (not far from where I grew up), and nowhere in New England.

There is a tendency in the United States to propagate the myth of European “discovery” which would suggest that this land was all but uninhabited before the Mayflower arrived in Massachusetts in 1620.  This couldn’t be farther from the truth.  In fact, the oldest house in the USA was already 400 years old by then and had already endured its first serious remodeling project!

It was built, as the angels Teresa and Annie who protect it in Kat Aragon’s charming bilingual picture book, tell us, in 1200 by the original inhabitants of what is now Santa Fe: the ancestral Puebloans.  They lived in the house for more than 200 years before something mysteriously drove them away.  It remained vacant until the Spaniards came in 1598 and has been continuously inhabited ever since.

The angels provide the narrative, and Mary Jo Madrid’s lovely watercolor illustrations help us realize that the house has been many things to many people over its 800 year history.  The Pueblo people were living in the house again, for instance, in 1680 during the Pueblo Revolt when they managed to drive out the Spanish for a brief time.  When the Spaniards came back, however, in 1692 under the leadership of General DeVargas, they recaptured the house and installed the Spanish governor there.  DeVargas gave his name to the street the house sits on, and so it remains to this day.

The Oldest House in the USA offers readers a glimpse of a part of US history that is very different from the one that is usually packaged up for school children, one that is no less rich or interesting.  Most children will see architecture and customs completely unfamiliar to them depicted in the illustrations, which will open their eyes to the many possibilities contained in the history of the Americas when we take the time to look a little more deeply.

Abigail Sawyer
December 2012