Book Review: The Big Tiny by Dee Williams

The Big Tiny: A Built-It-Myself Memoir

The official blurb:
Dee William’s life changed in an instant, with a near-death experience in the aisle of her local grocery store. Diagnosed with a heart condition at age forty-one, she was all too suddenly reminded that life is short, time is precious, and she wanted to be spending hers with the people and things she truly loved. That included the beautiful sprawling house in the Pacific Northwest she had painstakingly restored—but, increasingly, it did not include the mortgage payments, constant repairs, and general time-suck of home ownership. A new sense of clarity began to take hold: Just what was all this stuff for? Multiple extra rooms, a kitchen stocked with rarely used appliances, were things that couldn’t compare with the financial freedom and the ultimate luxury—time—that would come with downsizing.

Deciding to build an eighty-four-square-foot house—on her own, from the ground up—was just the beginning of building a new life. Williams can now list everything she owns on one sheet of paper, her monthly housekeeping bills amount to about eight dollars, and it takes her approximately ten minutes to clean the entire house. It’s left her with more time to spend with family and friends, and given her freedom to head out for adventure at a moment’s notice, or watch the clouds and sunset while drinking a beer on her (yes, tiny) front porch.

The lessons Williams learned from her “aha” moment post-trauma apply to all of us, every day, regardless of whether or not we decide to discard all our worldly belongings. Part how-to, part personal memoir, The Big Tiny is an utterly seductive meditation on the benefits of slowing down, scaling back, and appreciating the truly important things in life.

I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed this book. While billed as  a book about health scares and building a tiny house, it’s not really about that. Yet it’s totally about that. I know that makes no sense, just trust me on this one.

We all ask the quesition of What If.

What if I suddenly had health issues?
What if I decided to sell all my stuff?
What if I turned left instead of right?
What if I hadn’t stopped for coffee and got to that intersection where the accident was five minutes sooner?
What if I decided to sell all my stuff, build a house on a trailer and park it in my friend’s backyard and live there for a decade?

So we don’t all ask ourselves that last one but after reading an article in a doctor’s waiting room, Dee Williams asked herself exactly that.  Recently diagnosed with ventricular tachycardia with torsades (a heart condition that required a defibrillator to be installed in her chest to shock her heart back into working order when it decided to stop) and later congestive heart failure, Williams takes a look at her life and all the STUFF she’s accumulated and wonders why it’s that way. Why do we all want the big house with the big yard, filled with furniture and knick knacks and art and waste that accumulates in recycling bins and trash containers to be dumped in a landfill where we never think about it again? Is there another way?

That article, the one she just so happened upon in a magazine about a man half a country away that packed his whole life into his new tiny house, found Dee at just the right time. So she asked what if. What if I decided to sell all my stuff, build a house on a trailer that’s 84 square feet and park it in my friend’s backyard and live there for a decade?

“What would happen if I just … sort of … did that? What if I sold my my big house with its rats in the front yard, the mortgage, the hours of dusting, mopping, cleaning, vacuuming, painting, grass cutting, and yard pruning? How would it feel so live so light?”

So that’s what she did, using as many reclaimed goods as she could, Dee Williams set out to build herself a tiny house.  How tiny? A whopping 84 square feet. Take a look at your area rug. Picture a utility trailer. That’s the size of the footprint (mobile as it may be) of Dee’s house. After months of work, building her home herself with rented power tools and occasionally the help of some friends, she completed her tiny little home on her tiny little trailer and set out to head about 100 miles north to Olympia, Washington.

Cute, isn’t it?

The thing that Williams never directly addresses is that her lifestyle works because other people don’t live that way. She lives in a friend’s backyard (and the former government employee in me immediately screamed “zoning laws! How did she get away with that?” Short answer: Telling a small lie or two when the city told her it wasn’t allowed.), she showers in their shower (because she opted not to include one in her house and save the space), she stores her frozen goods in their freezer, watches their tv, hides out in their house when there are storms ripping through the area.

It’s a great idea in theory, and has clearly worked well enough for Dee to live in her tiny house for the last decade, but it’s because of her very giving friends and her willingness to run across a yard from the “big house” to her “tiny house” in nothing but a towel that allows her to live the way she does.  Yes, there are these survivalist folks that live off the land and don’t use indoor plumbing or want hot water. Dee’s not necessarily one of those. She’s a conservationist and environmentalist, certainly, but she’s not exactly living completely independent in her tiny house. It’s not a criticism or critique, just an observation that isn’t really talked about.

What really stands out in the book, between lists of belongings she gave away and discussion of a composting toilet (no thank you!), is Dee’s spirit. She’s an adventurer by nature, a risk taker, and has a sense of humor to carry her through all the ups and downs. She’s sick, yes, but never asks for sympathy or even really talks much to the people in her life about her heart issues. She won’t play the invalid. She’ll climb on a ladder in flip flops holding a nail gun instead.

The bigger lesson in The Big Tiny isn’t building plans or getting rid of all of your possessions or living one day at a time. It’s about community more than anything else.  Her circle of friends, the life she carved out for herself, the family they created together on one lot with two big houses and one tiny one tucked into the back corner. It’s about looking outside ourselves and outsides of our stuff. It’s not about square footage or dishes or anything you can touch and own.  In her own words, what’s needed is a sense of community and “a sense of home that extends past our locked doors, past our neighbors’ padlocks, to the local food co-op and library, the sidewalks busted up by old trees.”

Dee seems to have achieved that, all while living her big life in her tiny house.

4 out 5 for me. DISCLAIMER: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for review via Netgalley.
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2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Big Tiny by Dee Williams

  1. I almost requested this one on NetGalley. Now I’m sad I missed out. Great review!

    • angiedet says:

      Thanks Lauren! It’s probably not a book I would’ve picked up if it wasn’t for Netgalley and was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked it and what Dee had to say.

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