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Paperback Book Details
  • 01/2019
  • 9780996877701
  • 240 pages
  • $17.95
Skinny House: A Memoir of Family
Skinny House-A Memoir of Family is a granddaughter’s story about the grandfather she never met and the famous house he built in Mamaroneck, New York. This rare, first-rate family saga of three generations of an African American family poses a question for all of us: What do we really know about the dreams and aspirations of our ancestors?
Plot/Idea: 10 out of 10
Originality: 10 out of 10
Prose: 9 out of 10
Character/Execution: 10 out of 10
Overall: 9.75 out of 10


Idea/Concept: Seely crafts a tenderly wrought story of family and survival. Exploring the lasting influences of ancestry and unraveling the puzzles at the heart of an extended family, Seely provides a work that is deeply personal and universal in appeal.

Prose: Seely takes ownership over her story through the use of measured prose and understated imagery. While the writing style may strike readers as occasionally detached and overly journalistic, Seely compensates with passages that provide a stirring undercurrent of emotion. 

Originality: This memoir takes a highly unique approach to exploring a family's distant legacy through its focus on a distinctive piece of architecture. The titular "Skinny House" serves as a beacon and centering force within the work, allowing it to stand apart from other personal chronicles of family history. Seely has written a story only she can tell and she tells if with great care and reverence.

Execution: Seely's memoir is a quiet yet attention grabbing story that never meanders and delivers eloquent descriptions of both everyday and extraordinary events over the course of three generations. 

Date Submitted: October 08, 2019

Foreword Clarion Reviews

Skinny House is the vibrant, complicated story of one family amid the quest for racial equity in America.

Julie L. Seely’s family memoir Skinny House also tells a broader story about American and African American history.

Seely never knew her grandfather, Nathan, but the absence left behind after his death reverberated in her family. Her

childhood was marked by a mysterious silence. It wasn’t until she was an adult that Seely decided to unearth her

family’s story, and what she found was remarkable, impacting her sense of personal history and testifying to a broader

narrative of triumph and struggle for black families. Skinny House sheds a personal light on the Great Migration, the

Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, and the decades that followed.

Nathan was a carpenter who made a healthy living in the 1920s building houses for “colored people,” but the Great

Depression destroyed his business and very nearly his family. He rebuilt his life, and his family’s home, which became

known as the Skinny House—a landmark in Mamaroneck, New York. But being born into the hard part of the story

shaped Seely’s father’s view of himself and his relationship with Nathan, adding another layer to Seely’s tale.

The multilayered nature of the narrative is alluring. It’s not just the story of Seely’s family, but includes her own

account of resurrecting the family history. The threads of these stories are well balanced. Seely’s narrative voice is

elegant, and her book is well paced and full of vibrant imagery. Each character is crafted with empathy and clear-eyed

honesty. Nathan’s pioneering spirit and resolve are stirring, and while he is at the heart of the story, his roots follow

through to Seely’s childhood in Baltimore and through other branches of the family.

Research is evident in this family story, even though many of its key players had passed away by the time Seely wrote

it. She balances filling in gaps of information with decisions to let empty spaces resonate, echoing her desire to know

and her simultaneous need to rest in the unknown.

Photographs are clear despite their age, used to highlight personalities and the house to give a greater sense of the

family’s history. A portrait of Nathan in an early chapter is particularly stunning. The central image of the book—a

three-story house just ten feet wide, built from salvaged materials—captures the spirit of Seely’s family and its

patriarch: ingenuity, determination, and closeness. A brochure advertising Nathan’s business is a moving historical

artifact, conveying the dream of middle-class life that carried black families during the Great Migration.

Skinny House is the vibrant, complicated story of one family amid the quest for racial equity in America.

MELISSA WUSKE (March 6, 2019)

Kirkus Reviews


This debut family biography tells the story of the author’s grandfather, a homebuilder who built a 10-foot-wide, three-story house after losing everything in the Great Depression.

In 1932, after losing his business, Nathan Seely, one of the first African-American homebuilding business owners in New York, drafted a blueprint and singlehandedly built the titular house in Mamaroneck out of scrap materials, which saved the family from homelessness. However, it failed to salvage Nathan and Lillian’s troubled marriage. Nathan was a man who defined himself by his work, and by working for himself. For many years, he and his brother Willard ran a successful construction business, aimed at building affordable houses for African-American people. Lillian, who’d become accustomed to living in a big house during prosperous times, felt that he should have tried other lines of work. Meanwhile, differences between the gregarious Nathan and his introverted son, Tom, were exacerbated by Tom’s lack of interest in the building trades, and the spartan conditions of life in the Skinny House. Author Seely’s interest in her family history was piqued by the architectural oddity of the titular house, as well as the fact that her own father rarely smiled in early family photos. She knew that he and her grandfather were estranged, but she didn’t know why, so in 1998 she became determined to pursue the mystery. The result is a history that reads very much like a novel, and the extensive citations and photos only enhance the reading experience. Along the way, Seely meticulously reconstructs her family’s story, setting it against the backdrop of the Harlem Renaissance, Prohibition, and World War II. Although she knew some family members only through research and anecdote, she turns them all into living, breathing human beings on the page, including such vivid secondary characters as her Aunt Sug.

A great read for historians that will also appeal to anyone who enjoys a first-rate family saga.

ALA Annual Conference for Librarians

Meet the Author at the Skinny House Booth # 813M in the Diversity Pavillion.

June21- 25 2019

Walter E. Washington Convention Ctr

Washington, D. C.

Author Talk Perrot Memorial Library, Greenwich, CT

Author Talk and Book Signing

Wednesday, June 26, 2019 at 7:00pm

Perrot Memorial Library

90 Sound Beach Ave, Old

Greenwich, CT 06870


Meet The Author Julie L. Seely

Skinny House- A Memoir of Family

Book Signing on Friday, May 31, 2019 at 2:30-3:30-pm in the Combined Book Exhibit Booth

Paperback Book Details
  • 01/2019
  • 9780996877701
  • 240 pages
  • $17.95