National Endowment of the Arts - The Big Read
Housekeeping

Housekeeping

by Marilynne Robinson

I have spent my life watching, not to see beyond the world, merely to see, great mystery, what is plainly before my eyes.


Marilynne Robinson (Copyright Nancy Crampton)

Josephine Reed: Now, The Big Read.

Annette Bening reads from Housekeeping...

My name is Ruth. I grew up with my younger sister, Lucille, under the care of my grandmother, Mrs. Sylvia Foster, and when she died, of her sisters-in-law, Misses Lily and Nona Foster, and when they fled, of her daughter, Mrs. Sylvia Fisher. Through all these generations of elders we lived in one house, my grand­mother's house, built for her by her husband, Edmund Foster, an employee of the railroad, who escaped this world years before I entered it. It was he who put us down in this unlikely place.

Josephine Reed: That's Annette Bening reading from Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson. Welcome to The Big Read, a program created by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The largest reading program in American history, The Big Read is designed to unite communities through great literature.

Here's your host, poet and former chair of the NEA, Dana Gioia.

Dana Gioia: Marilynne Robinson's 1980 debut novel, Housekeeping, introduced readers to three generations of women from an eccentric family, the Fosters, who live in the fictional town of Fingerbone. The language and atmosphere of the novel is extraordinarily original – lucid yet otherworldly, mysterious yet oddly familiar. Robinson never specifies the time or location in which the novel is set, although we can infer that it probably takes place in the 1950s, somewhere in Idaho.

Writer Pico Iyer.

Pico Iyer: We're in this town called Fingerbone, which almost seems like a place of myth. It's this nowhere place that feels like it's the end of the world, both in terms of time and in terms of space. It feels like somewhere that's fallen off the planet.

Gioia: Musician Jim White.

Jim White: It is set in a temporal twilight. Everything in the book is on the cusp of one world and another world. We know the topography of the world in great detail, but we don't know where we are. We know we are lost in some mountains.

Aimee Mann: It could be anywhere and it could be nowhere…

Gioia: Musician Aimee Mann.

Mann: It's very dreamlike in a way, and it's very heavy with that Americana and isolation.

Iyer: Emptiness stretching everywhere, and lake and mountain and air – and those are the three protagonists as much as the human beings, really.

Gioia: Housekeeping tells the story of two young sisters, Ruth and Lucille, who have grown up in Seattle with their mother, Helen. One fateful Sunday morning, they drive to Helen's hometown of Fingerbone, a place the girls have never visited before. Helen leaves her daughters on their grandmother's front porch with a box of graham crackers, and disappears in her borrowed car. Soon after, Helen commits suicide by driving off a cliff into the depths of Fingerbone Lake.

Susan Balée: There are two girls who have been orphaned. Who will raise these girls?

Gioia: Critic Susan Balée.

Balée: They're in the home their grandfather built. They're in a kind of a tragic western town. And they're from a family that is mentally unstable.

Gioia: After their mother's suicide, Ruth and Lucille settle quietly into the family home in Fingerbone, where they are cared for by a changing procession of guardians.

Aimee Mann.

Mann: There's an unbearable tension in the book because the two children have been first abandoned by their mother who commits suicide, and then abandoned by their grandmother who dies, and then abandoned by their two great-aunts. And Sylvie comes in, who's a very sketchy character.

Gioia: Their Aunt Sylvie is a transient who has spent time riding freight trains around the American West, but despite her itinerant nature, she arrives in Fingerbone to take over the responsibility of raising Ruth and Lucille.

Pico Iyer.

Iyer: And really, it's about the strange thing of trying to set up a family and trying to set up a household in this landscape of absolute wilderness and transience and impermanence, where everything seems very, very flimsy.

Gioia: After Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson waited 24 years before publishing her second novel, Gilead, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2005. She teaches writing at the University of Iowa, although she is originally from Idaho.

Marilynne Robinson.

Marilynne Robinson: I grew up in northern Idaho, in Sandpoint and Coeur d' Alene, Idaho. I was the fourth generation of my family to live there. Both sets of grandparents lived in Sandpoint, and they lived at the opposite ends of a bridge that crossed a lake, which became Fingerbone Lake in my imagination.

Gioia: The town of Fingerbone is organized around an enormous glacial lake, with which Ruth's family has a dark and complicated history. Not only did her mother commit suicide by driving into the lake, but long before Ruth's birth, her grandfather died in a dramatic accident as his train plunged from the bridge into the water.

Robinson: The lake is very impressive, it's very large and cold and very beautiful. I don't know, it's like the local spirit of the place. We spent a lot of time just sort of hovering on the edges of it and looking at it and dipping into it.

Annette Bening reads from Housekeeping...

It is true that one is always aware of the lake in Fingerbone, or the deeps of the lake, the lightless, airless waters below. When the ground is plowed in the spring, cut and laid open, what exhales from the furrows but that same, sharp, watery smell. The wind is watery, and all the pumps and creeks and ditches smell of water unalloyed by any other element. At the foundation is the old lake, which is smothered and nameless and altogether black. Then there is Fingerbone, the lake of charts and photographs, which is permeated by sunlight and sustains green life and innumerable fish, and in which one can look down in the shadow of a dock and see stony, earthy bottom, more or less as one sees dry ground. And above that, the lake rises in the spring and turns the grass dark and coarse as reeds. And above that the water suspended in sunlight, sharp as the breath of an animal, which brims inside this circle of mountains.

Robinson: My family came there, I think, and stayed there because of the lake, because it was beautiful. It's never been the easiest place in the world to live, you know. But it was as if they found something kind of irrefutable, you know, something that they couldn't turn their backs on.

Gioia: Jim White.

White: The lake is this profound symbolic entity. The grandfather plunges into the lake. When the lake freezes, the community suddenly is able to access the lake and sort of bring it into the world of human experience. But the lake always prevails. The lake, after a while, seemed less like a lake and more like sort of a reservoir for the wilder impulses of the characters who didn't belong. So the lake to me was this captivating character in the book. I loved the lake. I didn't know what the lake was gonna do next.

Gioia: Pico Iyer.

Iyer: The whole language of the book takes you back into the cadences of the Bible. There's this incantatory feeling behind all the language, which really almost makes the book an incantation of loss. A vision of a little community in the middle of nowhere, almost as seen from a biblical height.

Gioia: At the end of winter, the town of Fingerbone is devastated by a major flood, which Robinson describes with both humor and with subtle biblical undercurrents. When the banks of the lake are overwhelmed, not even the Fosters' house, which is perched on top of a hill, can escape the rising water.

Annette Bening reads from Housekeeping...

Days of rain at just that time were a disaster. They hastened the melting of the snow but not the thawing of the ground. So at the end of three days the houses and hutches and barns and sheds of Fingerbone were like so many spilled and foundered arks. […]

Fingerbone was never an impressive town. It was chastened by an outsized landscape and extravagant weather, and chastened again by an awareness that the whole of human history had occurred elsewhere. That flood flattened scores of headstones. More disturbing, the graves sank when the water receded, so that they looked a little like hollow sides or empty bellies. […]

Much of what Fingerbone had hoarded up was defaced or destroyed outright, but perhaps because the hoard was not much to begin with, the loss was not overwhelming.

Gioia: Jim White.

White: Boundaries in this story are permeable. Nature comes into their house. Underneath the lake, there's a whole 'nother world. Everywhere you look, the physics of our world is undermined by the story. It's as if the storyteller had invented a new form of physics.

Gioia: Pico Iyer.

Iyer: All the boundaries between the house and the lake, between the dead and the living, between dreaming and wakefulness, between all states of consciousness – they're all dissolved in this book.

Gioia: Aimee Mann.

Mann: The two little girls in the story are sort of repeatedly traumatized by abandonment and these images of flooding or, you know, drowning or sinking under the water or freezing over. The house is flooded and the town is flooded and the water kind of represents this theme of these broken relationships and the broken families.

Bret Lott: This is an extraordinarily moving story of two children who so long for their mother, whom they lost, that they reinvent her in different ways.

Gioia: Ruth and Lucille slowly become accustomed to their Aunt Sylvie's remote, unconventional behavior.

Author Bret Lott.

Lott: She's an enigma to these children, and she's also a tabula rasa, 'cause they really don't know what to do with her because she is so very strange. Her idea of housekeeping is very different than their ideas.

Gioia: Susan Balée.

Balée: Sylvie in some ways is a very loving mother. I mean, she turns herself inside out to take care of these girls. She does something that is alien to her nature as a transient: to live in a house, to cook meals, to take care of the girls.

Gioia: Pico Iyer.

Iyer: It takes this very domestic idea of making a house and turns it on its head with these three ladies setting up an extremely eccentric house in a world of people being swept hither and thither. So it almost reinvents the term and reinvents the notion of what a house and a home is.

Lott: After winter's gone, there are leaves inside the house…

Gioia: Bret Lott.

Lott:... and there's this sound every time the door opens or closes in the house when the leaves kinda rustle. And it's Ruthie's impression that Sylvie likes the kind of ephemeral sound of those leaves rattling in the corners.

Annette Bening reads from Housekeeping...

Thus finely did our house become attuned to the orchard and to the particularities of weather, even in the first days of Sylvie's housekeeping. Thus did she begin by littles and perhaps unawares to ready it for wasps and bats and barn swal­lows. Sylvie talked a great deal about housekeeping. She soaked all the tea towels for a number of weeks in a tub of water and bleach. She emptied several cupboards and left them open to air, and once she washed half the kitchen ceiling and a door. Sylvie believed in stern solvents, and most of all in air. It was for the sake of air that she opened doors and windows, though it was probably through forgetfulness that she left them open. It was for the sake of air that on one early splendid day she wrestled my grandmother's plum-colored davenport into the front yard, where it remained until it weathered pink.

Gioia: Pico Iyer.

Iyer: The book ushers you into a world where you can be sure that you never know what's going to happen next, which is really the world of Ruth. It brings you into her consciousness and you begin to feel what it is to be a little girl with no moorings and aware that you can lose anybody at any moment.

Gioia: You're listening to The Big Read from the National Endowment for the Arts. Today we're discussing Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson.

Balée: What civilization is based on is institutions.

Gioia: Susan Balée.

Balée: Education, being good householders, having routines – these are all the things that Sylvie has breached in her guardianship of these girls, and Lucille begins to resent it deeply.

Gioia: Bret Lott.

Lott: Lucille slowly becomes a very practical minded person because she identifies with people in the town, whereas Ruthie identifies with Sylvie. And so there's this kind of gradual diversion in their sisterhood.

Gioia: Jim White.

White: When you think about two sisters who are orphaned and all they have is each other, and to watch them slowly be pulled apart by the gravity of convention and the gravity of, I would call it, misconvention... to see them so incrementally pulled apart creates sort of a profound sorrow in you and an ache in you. You want these two sisters to cleave to each other in this crazy world.

Annette Bening reads from Housekeeping...

When we did come home Sylvie would certainly be home, too, enjoying the evening, for so she described her habit of sitting in the dark. Evening was her special time of day. She gave the word three syllables, and indeed I think she liked it so well for its tendency to smooth, to soften. She seemed to dislike the disequilibrium of counterpoising a roomful of light against a worldful of darkness. Sylvie in a house was more or less like a mermaid in a ship's cabin. She preferred it sunk in the very element it was meant to exclude. We had crickets in the pantry, squirrels in the eaves, sparrows in the attic. Lucille and I stepped through the door from sheer night to sheer night.

Gioia: Lucille's increasing frustration with her aunt's unusual way of living finally leads her to abandon Ruth and Sylvie to move in with her home economics teacher.

Susan Balée.

Balée: She wants to have a life that's similar to the girls she knows at school even though, as Ruthie shows, the things they think about are so frivolous. Who cares, you know, whether or not your skirt matches your jacket and you make something out of a pattern? Or just the things that people are interested in that are quotidian seem sort of a waste to both Ruthie and to Sylvie.

White: They are drawn to dream worlds…

Gioia: Jim White.

White: …and Lucille has every right to fear dream worlds 'cause it took her mother, and is a threat to the things that she thinks are important. She doesn't want be blown away. She doesn't want to drive off the cliff into the lake. She doesn't want to ride on a hobo train. She's terrified of being free.

Gioia: After Lucille's departure, Aunt Sylvie's behavior becomes even more erratic. Ruth, without the grounding influence of her sister, unquestioningly adopts her aunt's strange customs. Aimee Mann.

Mann: Both of the kids really crave stability when they first came to their grandmother's house. And I think there's something about Ruth that just gave up and kind of went along with whatever was happening. However crazy Sylvie got, you know, rowing her boat in the lake all night and that kind of thing. You know, like however crazy things became, she just kind of went with it and went inside herself.

Gioia: Susan Balée.

Balée: What it's really about is briefly tending to our existences while we're on earth. That's the other story that's always unspooling, that we're only here for a brief time. If we are all transients, is it better to embrace that? And Sylvie has quite literally been a transient, riding the rails. Or is it better to do what Lucille does, and pretend that the end is not going to come, that life is orderly, and that the cracking in the lake doesn't mean anything?

Gioia: Pico Iyer.

Iyer: The book struck me as a deeply American book, which hit me as somebody not from America because I think of the whole of America as a society of transients. And that's always been the lure of America to those of us from the rest of the world. That it's a place where your future is being decided every moment and that yesterday bears no relation to tomorrow.

Gioia: Trains regularly pass through Fingerbone, on their way to distant places. Their constant presence both underscores the isolation of this small northwestern town, and it also reminds us of that hidden society of transients.

Susan Balée.

Balée: The one thing, they evoke for me that time in America where people really did ride the rails. But trains are also what populated America finally, much more so than the settlers did. If you lived in a town that finally got a train stop, that town could continue to survive, so trains were lifelines in a way.

Gioia: Train tracks run right through the town where Marilynne Robinson grew up.

Robinson: Nothing ever seemed to stop there, but everything did pass through. You heard train whistles often. You know, there's something about trains, they sort of harmonize with the landscape better than anything else that we've done as human beings, I think.

Gioia: Jim White.

White: The train is the referent to the world beyond the world. I think that's a pretty basic perception of trains. They are the conveyances to freedom. And yet, nothing is simple. I mean, the train also killed their grandfather. And the train is fraught with peril, but it's how you get away.

Gioia: The people of Fingerbone begin to worry about the well-being of young Ruth. When they discover that Ruth and Sylvie have spent all night in a stolen boat on the lake, then hopped a freight train back into town at dawn, they feel that someone must intervene. So the gentle local sheriff is sent to talk with Sylvie. He explains that if she doesn't change the way she is raising her niece, they may be forced to take Ruth away.

Annette Bening reads from Housekeeping...

It had always seemed to me that Sylvie and I were there together purely as a matter of accident—the wind blows a milkweed puff and two seeds do not fly. It seemed to me that we shared the house amicably because it was spacious enough and we both felt at home there and because habits of politeness were deeply engrained in us both. If a judge were to appear and whisk me under his black robes like a hobo in our grandmother's cautionary tales, and carry me off to the rumored farm, a shock would roll through the house, and rattle the plates, and totter the cups, and ring in the glasses for days, perhaps, and Sylvie would have another story to tell, not so very sad compared with others. Yet here was purpose and urgency. I knew we were doomed. I put on a skirt which Sylvie had let down for me and pressed (things like that matter to them, she said), and my best sweater, and Sylvie worried the largest snarls out of my hair with a wide-tooth comb. “Now stand up straight,” she said as I went out the door. “Smile at people.” I spent the day in misery and suspense, and I came home to find Sylvie sitting in a swept and catless parlor, speaking softly with the sheriff.

Gioia: Threatened by separation, Sylvie makes a final desperate effort to conform to the wishes and expectations of the town.

Balée: Well, the sheriff really does feel bad. But on the other hand, he's having to give in to the pressure of townspeople. And the townspeople can see. I mean, when you're in the orchard burning all these magazines as they are towards the end there and, you know, it's obvious they've been out there for many, many hours. They're not wearing coats.

Gioia: Aimee Mann.

Mann: There's a lot of speculation about the meaning of family and the idea of trying to resist the kind of disintegration that happens when families fall apart.

Gioia: Pico Iyer.

Iyer: I think a lot of the books that we love are about the settling of America and the settling of a family, especially out in the West. And this almost seems to be a book about the unsettling of a family.

Annette Bening reads from Housekeeping...

It is a terrible thing to break up a family. If you understand that, you will understand everything that follows. The sheriff knew it as well as anyone, and his face was slack with regret. “There'll be a hearing, Mrs. Fisher,” he said, wearily, because whatever Sylvie might say, he could make no other reply.

“It would be a terrible thing to do,” Sylvie said, and the sheriff dropped his palms on his knees by way of agreement and said, “There'll be a hearing, ma'am.” When I came into the room he rose and clutched his hat under his belly. He had all the formality of manner of an undertaker, and I said “Good evening” to him out of kindness. “Excuse us grown folks,” he said. “We got to talk.” So I went up to my room and left my fate to work itself out, since I had no curiosity about what was destined for me, and no doubt.

Gioia: Jim White.

White: The sheriff is sympathetic. It's really interesting. There are no villains in this story. Everyone is trying to do good, which I think is what the world is like. I think people are generally trying to do good, and they are trying to protect what they think is a way to preserve their housekeeping. But for those people who don't fit in, what do you do?

Annette Bening reads from Housekeeping...

I cannot taste a cup of water but I recall that the eye of the lake is my grandfather's, and that the lake's heavy, blind, encumbering waters composed my mother's limbs and weighed her garments and stopped her breath and stopped her sight. There is remembrance, and communion, altogether human and unhallowed. For families will not be broken. Curse and expel them, send their children wandering, drown them in floods and fires, and old women will make songs out of all these sorrows and sit in the porches and sing them on mild evenings. Every sorrow suggests a thousand songs, and every song recalls a thousand sorrows, and so they are infinite in number, and all the same.

Gioia: Thanks for joining the Big Read. This program was created by the National Endowment for the Arts, in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services. It was written and produced by Dan Stone. Readings from Housekeeping were by Annette Bening.

“Long Way Home” by Tom Waits, currently playing in the background, from the album Orphans, used courtesy of ANTI, a division of Epitaph Records. “Poor Boy, Minor Key” from the album Transfiguration of Vincent and Paul's Song” from Transistor Radio, by M. Ward, used by permission of Merge Records. “The Water,” by Feist, from the album The Reminder, used by permission of Universal Music Group. “Save Me,” by Aimee Mann, from the soundtrack to the film Magnolia, used courtesy of SuperEgo Records. “Sarabande” from J.S. Bach's Cello Suites, and “Sonata for Solo Violin” by Béla Bartók, used courtesy of Naxos USA. Sound effects by Casey Langfelder and Frank Rinella of Skywalker Sound.

Production assistants: Adam Kampe and Pepper Smith. Administrative assistants: Liz Mehaffey and Erika Koss. Special thanks to Ami Spishock, Paul Dalen, Mac McCaughan, Tresa Redburn, Stuart Smith, Allison Sundberg, Ted Libbey, and to our contributors: Susan Balée, Pico Iyer, Bret Lott, Aimee Mann, Marilynne Robinson, and Jim White. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Dana Gioia.

Reed: For more information about The Big Read, go to www.neabigread.org. That's www.neabigread.org.

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