Housekeeping was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and was awarded the PEN/Hemingway Award for best first novel.
As I finished Housekeeping I was somehow in shock by the sheer power of this work. The Guardian in an essay in their 100 greatest novels of all time series (they place it at 82) says
It is “the work of an American writer, and Calvinist, intimately at home with the Bible and the great transcendentalists, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Herman Melville”. I did find it also very much an American book. (Robinson has been highly praised by President Barack Obama.). It is also about drifters, people who do not quite fit into the surrounding societies. Water has a heavy presence in Housekeeping.The plot line opens with a passenger train plunging from a railroad bridge into a lake, killing everyone on the train. American church rituals and music are replete with trains bound for glory.
Housekeeping is the story of two orphan girls, Ruth and Lizzie. Both their grandfather and their mother drowned in the same lake the train plunged into. The symbolism of water is as open to interpretation as that of the White Whale. It sustains life and brings death. The novel is set in the imaginary community of Fingerbone, Idaho. Not date is given but references set it in the early 1950s.
Narrated by Ruthie, the girls are raised by a series of eccentric relatives until their mother’s sister, their Aunt Sylvia shows up.
Sylvia has long been a drifter. She commits to acting as a “housekeeper” for her neices. At first both girls think she will soon leave but then perceptions change: “Ruth says: “I was reassured by her sleeping on the lawn, and now and then in the car. It seemed to me that if she could remain transient here, she would not have to leave.” Much of the depth of Housekeeping is in the drawn of a transient life. There are several brief stories of homeless drifters encountered on trains.
Ruth begins to ponder the dark past of her family. She is more comfortable with the behavior of Sylvia than her more conventional sister Lucille.
Sylvie wanders by the lake while the family house goes to pieces. Ruth, our narrator, is at home with her aunt’s transient spirit, and comfortable with solitude: “Once alone,” she says, “it is impossible to believe that one could ever have been otherwise. Loneliness is an absolute discovery.” If Loneliness is an absolute discovery is housekeeping a way of hiding, and then we ask hiding from what.?
Lucille moves away, the Fingerbone community tries to have Sylvia declared an unfit guardian. In response Ruth and Sylvia burn down their house. They escape across the lake. The town’s people assume they have drowned in the lake. I will leave the rest of this fascinating novel untold. In a way it is a novel of the reading life with both Sylvia and Ruthie having works of classic literature deeply impressed on them.
From the Guardian
“In the words of an early New York Times review, this novel is “about people who have not managed to connect with a place, a purpose, a routine or another person. It’s about the immensely resourceful sadness of a certain kind of American, someone who has fallen out of history and is trying to invent a life without assistance of any kind, without even recognising that there are precedents. It is about a woman who is so far from everyone else that it would be presumptuous to put a name to her frame of mind”.
As a modern classic, Housekeeping can bear any weight of interpretation. Like Fingerbone’s lake water, it has become a mirror in which generations of new readers can find themselves, as if for the first time”
I think this is correct but shallow. Why or is the drifting life so powerful a draw? There are many precedents in American history and literature for this. What does Sylvia and Ruthie see the towns people do not.
I have a copy of Robinson’s second novel Gilead on my E Reader and hope to read it soon. Gilead did win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
From her publisher
“MARILYNNE ROBINSON is the author of Gilead, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award; Home, winner of the Orange Prize and a finalist for the National Book Award; and Lila, also a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. Housekeeping won the PEN/Hemingway Award. Her nonfiction includes Absence of Mind; The Death of Adam; Mother Country, nominated for a National Book Award; and When I Was a Child I Read Books. She teaches at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop”.
She has so far published four novels and four essay collections. I hope to read them all.