The Power of Half by Kevin and Hannah Salwen

I have seriously mixed feelings about The Power of Half: One Family’s Decision to Stop Taking and Start Giving Back. On the one hand I firmly agree with the idea behind the book: that we focus too much on collecting “stuff” and not enough time on giving of ourselves and this impacts the character of our children. On the other hand, the tone and style of the book just doesn’t quite work.

Allow me to kick things off by lazily stealing using PW’s review:

In this well-meaning but self-congratulatory memoir, the Salwen family decides to sell their gorgeous Atlanta mansion, move to a home half the size, and commit half the proceeds to the needy. Putting their plan into action, a raft of family decisions and meetings are led by mom Joan, a former corporate consulting executive and teacher, with the help of an actual whiteboard. Entrepreneur and activist Kevin, a former Wall Street Journal editor, writes with daughter Hannah, who, as instigator of the family project, provides commentary and practical suggestions. The chronicle is intriguing and the cohesiveness of the four family members is remarkable: “Friends and others… always focused on… the big house, the big donation, or the trip to Africa” with their eventual partner, The Hunger Project, rather than “the transformational energy” of “a family eager to stand for something collectively.” The authors tend to gush over their efforts while discounting the privileged position that allows them to make them (“we think everyone can give one of the three T’s: time, talent or treasure”); their unflagging optimism, buttressed by clear self-regard, can also be tiring.

The hook (selling their house and giving half the proceeds to charity) is intriguing and following the story on how that process plays out is interesting in many ways.

But the drawbacks of style and tone noted by PW really drag the story down.

More below.

To be fair, this is not an easy project to pull off.  The Salwens are successful, wealthy and earnest people. There was no way they were going to be able to hide the fact that they were the recipients of a great many of blessings beyond what the average person possesses.

I am not saying it is all luck. Obviously, they worked hard and made smart decisions along the way. But they went to the best schools, had high paying jobs and benefited from the real estate boom.

This allows them to live in a mansion, send their kids to the best schools, and generally live in the padded confines of upper middle class American life.  And it is only from this position that they are able to contemplate the idea of selling their house and giving half to charity.

And good for them, right? There are a decent amount of people who could conceivably do the same thing and would laugh at the suggestion.

The family retains a sense of how lucky they are and how they should give back. The parents don’t want the materialism to take over their kids lives. This is all laudable.

But it doesn’t mean the book is a great read or magically turn the authors into captivating characters in the story. Instead, the story is interesting despite the writing.

And PW hits on the two aspects that grate: the self-congratulation and the never ending optimism.  The whole thing gives off the vibe of trying to hard. Kevin seems to go out of his way to insist that they are really just your average family who happens to have enough money to buy just about whatever they want; that they earned everything they have through hard work and dedication and they bought the things they did out of only the best of intentions.

This tone is both defensive and a little self-centered (an understandable trap given the story but one that can be irritating even so). The family doesn’t come across as human because they barely seem to have any flaws whatsoever. Sure Joseph isn’t exactly gung ho on the idea at first and the family has trouble concentrating a few times but other than that there seems to be no conflict or problems.  It has the feel of a corporate project involving gifted children rather than a family that you can relate to.

And this slides into the second aspect: the “unflagging optimism.” The story finally gets interesting when the very house they were going to sell for the profits to fund their giving won’t sell as the housing market crumbles. But the bump is quickly dealt with – only a few anguished walks around the block – as the family votes to move some money around and pay the installments from their own money college savings be damned!

This is all coming off much harsher than I intended. The story is really rather interesting. I mean just contemplate if you suggested you sell your house and give half of the profits away.  It is an incredible act and the family’s reaction is to grow closer and communicate more.

The attempt to inspire and encourage other families to give more and grow closer together – to knock “stuff” down the priority list – is great and worth supporting. And the sections dealing with why charity has failed so much in the developing world, and how economic development and aid is coming to grips with these failures, is one of the more interesting sections of the book and also a subject worth highlighting.

But unfortunately the writing style just makes the book hard to read at times. You want to finish to find out how the project ended but not because the writing compels you to.  (And  having to stop between chapters and get a little mini-lecture from Hannah on how to give got old as well.)

This just seems to be one of those cases where real life events don’t get cpatured by the book.  Not all good deeds make great books. Sometimes the people who lived out the story are not able to write about in an engaging way.

So if you are interested in getting youth and families involved in charity and community involvement I can see how you would want to read The Power of Half. And there are some interesting educational aspects to the book.

But for whatever reason this potentially powerful story never quite delivers.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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