by Marilynne Robinson (1980)
Picador (2004)
219 pp

I hadn’t heard of Marilynne Robinson (a fellow native Idahoan) until sometime in 2004 or 2005 when she won the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award for her second novel Gilead. That I had never heard of her, despite our stepping into this world in the same state, is understandable: between Gilead and her first novel Housekeeping was a span of twenty-four years. For some reason, I still haven’t gotten around to reading Gilead though I’ve picked it up a few times. Now that her third book Home is a finalist for this year’s National Book Award, I thought it was time to go back the beginning and work my way through Robinson’s short (but definitely not inconsequential) oeuvre.

Housekeeping won the PEN/Hemingway Award, an award given to a work of first work of fiction by an American author. It was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1982, the year Rabbit Is Rich won. Compared to the other first novels I’ve read this year, Housekeeping is hands-down the best. In fact, it may be one of the best books I’ve read in years by any author. I’ll soon be making my way through Gilead and Home, and if they follow this vein, I’ll put Robinson in the first-tier of American authors.

Our narrator is Ruth, whose sad and strange childhood we will hear about. In the first chapter (a chapter that had as much content and characterization as many novels) we meet our narrator’s heritage. Her grandfather and grandmother lived in Fingerbone, a small western town with all its small town charm:

What with the lake and the railroads, and what with blizzards and floods and barn fires and forest fires and the general availability of shotguns and bear traps and homemade liquor and dynamite, what with the prevalence of loneliness and religion and the rages and ecstasies they induce, and the closeness of families, violence was inevitable.

Ruth’s grandfather is killed when his train careens into the large lake, a moment that goes into the town’s lore. The grandmother then raises their three daughters on her own. Each daughter moves on to a rather tragic life with terrible men. Ruth’s mother Helen is not the exception, and she manages to bring two daughters of her own, Ruth and Lucille, into this marriage. Eventually Helen borrows a neighbor’s car, drives Ruth and Lucille to Fingerbone, and leaves them on grandmother’s steps. Helen then drives the car into the lake, another event that is long remembered in Fingerbone. The grandmother takes in the two abandoned girls and tries to set up a nice home for them.

Yes, all of this is in the first short chapter, but it feels much more substantial than such a short chapter is usually capable of. As the story continues, the grandmother cannot hang on to life. Her two comical, elderly sisters, Lily and Nona, come to try their bumbling hands with Ruth and Lucille.

Their alarm was evident from the first, in the nervous flutter with which they searched their bags and pockets for the little present they had brought (it was a large box of cough drops — a confection they considered both tasty and salubrious).

When Lily and Nona realize they cannot raise the two young girls (not that they were ever comfortable with the idea of leaving their nice home in Spokane), they send for Sylvie, Helen’s transient sister. Sylvie comes and agrees to stay, though Ruth and Lucille expect her to leave any day. And this is the setup for a strange and touching story about the relationship between Ruth, Lucille, and their eccentric aunt Sylvie.

Never having been a young girl, I can’t speak for the accuracy of the coming of age elements in the story, but they felt real to me. As they grow up, Ruth and Lucille go down different paths. Ruth accepts their past for what it was. Lucille can’t.

. . . and sometimes we would try to remember our mother, though more and more we disagreed and even quarreled about what she had been like. Lucille’s mother was orderly, vigorous, and sensible, a widow (more than I ever knew or she could prove) who was killed in an accident. My mother presided over a life so strictly simple and circumscibed that it could not have made any significant demands on her attention. She tended us with a gentle indifference that made me feel she would have liked to have been even more alone — she was the abandoner, and not the one abandoned.

Worse, Lucille cannot accept Sylvie, who with her remoteness and tendency to disappear, constantly intimating abandonment, represents everything Lucille is trying to escape. Furthermore, it’s getting embarrassing. The house begins to fall into disrepair, and everyone is worried because Ruth seems to accept too easily Sylvie’s habits.

Robinson’s tone thoughout strikes the right note for me. Somehow she injects into her prose the atmosphere of Fingerbone, with its foggy lake, along with the transiency of the characters. Though the town remains in place, it always seems to be drifting away into the past. At the same time, the past does not disappear — the lake remains, and somewhere down there is a wrecked train and car.

Another reason I liked the book is because of Robinson’s control of her imagery. Throughout, Robinson plays with water and fire to create a very interesting feel — for example, “It was blocked, in fact by a big green couch so weighty and shapeless that it looked as if it had been hoisted out of forty feet of water.” — but it never, to me, was heavy handed. Obviously such imagery is Biblical, as is much of the imagery in the book, bringing to mind some excellent classics, but never does she do more than allude to religion. I’m anxious to see how she moves from this to her more overtly religious novels.

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