Review: Rise: How a House Built a Family by Cara Brookins

riseAbout Rise: How a House Built a Family

• Hardcover: 320 pages
• Published: January 2017 by St. Martin’s Press
• Source: Netgalley

Goodreads DescriptionAfter escaping an abusive marriage, Cara Brookins had four children to provide for and no one to turn to but herself. In desperate need of a home but without the means to buy one, she did something incredible.

Equipped only with YouTube instructional videos, a small bank loan, a mile-wide stubborn streak, Cara built her own house from the foundation up with a work crew made up of her four children.

It would be the hardest thing she had ever done. With no experience nailing together anything bigger than a bookshelf, she and her kids poured concrete, framed the walls and laid bricks for their two story, five bedroom house. She had convinced herself that if they could build a house, they could rebuild their broken family.

This must-read memoir traces one family’s rise from battered victims to stronger, better versions of themselves, all through one extraordinary do-it-yourself project.

My Thoughts

In the span of about 3 days, I saw this book probably 12 times in various newsletters and review blogs. I was intrigued after the first reference, and by the 12th, knew I NEEDED TO READ IT.

Rise: How a House Built a Family is a memoir about a mother and her four children building a house by watching YouTube videos. Cara Brookins and her children (ages 17, 15, 11, and 2) have lived through two abusive marriages. They’ve spent most of their lives afraid and broken. When they finally get out from under the second husband, Brookins proposes the idea of building a house as a way to rebuild their family. After all, they need a place to live, and they need a sense of rebirth. A sense of purpose, something positive and unsullied. Nevermind that they have no experience, no skills, and no idea what they’re getting into.

Screen grab of a video from

Screen grab of a video from Global News Canada (click image for story and video)

I was immediately interested, but I was also immediately skeptical. For one thing, I saw the picture of the house. I was convinced they’d just sorta remodeled it, rather than building from the ground up. (Spoiler – I was wrong.)

For another, I was a bit wary of how hyped the book was. Sometimes the idea of a story is better than the story itself, and I was afraid of disappointment. (I’ve never really gotten over Eat, Pray, Love.) I wanted to read Rise, but I also didn’t want to find out I’d been misled by powerful marketing. And finally, I was worried about the writing. I’d never heard of this Cara Brookins person, who, according to Goodreads, is a computer analyst.

I thought about pre-ordering the book, but on a whim checked Netgalley – and there it was.

Before I go on, I’ve seen a couple of other reviews mention that the organization is confusing. It’s not, actually. The chapters alternate between Rise and Fall. “Rise” chapters are the story of the house, and how they built it. “Fall” chapters describe the path leading up to the two bad marriages and the domestic violence. In other words, rise and fall are symbolic, and used to show the breadth of experience. Make sense?

Brookins writes about the past without anger, accounting the years leading up to the house’s conception in a straightforward manner. Yet, it’s not cold or detached. There’s emotion there, but it’s handled in a way that makes you empathize with her.

As for building the house, it quickly becomes clear that Brookins and her kids have bitten off an enormous project. Brookins is up front about that – and writes in a way that makes you laugh and shake your head along with her, all the while cheering her on. She’s able to convey the absurdity of the situation in a way that makes the reader applaud her tenacity, rather than judge her ineptitude. But, to be clear, she’s not inept – not even close. The sheer amount of determination, research, and willingness to just try are critical to her success, both with building the house and healing her family, and with telling her story.

In some ways, Cara Brookins reminds me of Cheryl Strayed (of Wild fame). Both undertake a task they’re incredibly ill-prepared for, that’s way out of their comfort zone, but that will ultimately shape the rest of their lives. However, where Strayed is often bitter and, frankly, clueless, Brookins is optimistic and adaptable. Perhaps the differences are more in the telling than the doing – I suppose we’ll never know.

Rise: How a House Built a Family is definitely not a disappointment; in fact, quite the opposite. I found it interesting, humorous, and most of all, inspiring.

4 stars

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for the review copy! All opinions are my own.