NEA Big Read


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.

Introduction to the Book

Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping (1980) tells the story of Ruthie, a quiet, friendless girl living in a remote Idaho town called Fingerbone. The train that travels into the cold mountains of Fingerbone crosses a lake that has claimed the lives of Ruthie's grandfather by accident and her mother by suicide, leaving Ruthie and her younger sister Lucille with their grandmother, Sylvia Foster.

When Sylvia passes away, her two sisters-in-law move to Fingerbone to take care of the girls. Though pleasant and dutiful, Misses Lily and Nona Foster enjoy their solitude. After the first hard winter, they leave Ruthie and Lucille in the hands of a younger guardian, the girls' aunt Sylvie, who returns home after sixteen years.

Sylvie, their mother's younger sister, is a boxcar drifter content with her itinerant lifestyle, but she commits to staying in Fingerbone to keep house and raise the girls. She has little experience with either and becomes like a "mermaid in a ship's cabin." Most days, she wanders to the lake by the train tracks and drifts in a stolen rowboat. In a house soon covered in soot and cobwebs, cans and newspapers, she feeds the girls from jelly jars and plates made from detergent boxes.

Ruthie takes it all in stride, but her sister, Lucille, sees the other children in town and wants no part of Sylvie's world. Whereas the sisters are inseparable through much of their young lives, they begin to grow apart in their teenage years. Lucille matures into a prissy woman who swings her hips and sews her own dresses; Ruthie remains a tall, gangly child with a buzzard's hunch and a distaste for school. Soon their lives, like the house and the town and their dark family history, get lost in the tangled overgrowth of loneliness and neglect. The family ties that have kept them together can hold them no more.

In language as lyrical and lush as the landscapes it describes, Robinson tells a haunting story of the permanence of loss and the transitory nature of love. She reminds us that, despite the fragility of human relationships, our desires to hold onto them are what make us whole.

"To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it . . . and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing—the world will be made whole."
—Marilynne Robinson, from Housekeeping

Major Characters in the Book

Edmund Foster
Although this patriarch is already dead when the novel begins, his decision to settle in the lonesome northwest town of Fingerbone haunts the lives of all the women who survive him. The victim of an eerie nighttime train derailment, his unexpected death forces his wife to raise their three daughters alone.

Sylvia Foster
Sylvia continues to live in her Fingerbone house, with no thought of flight after her husband's death. She raises her children Molly, Helen, and Sylvie with neither complaint nor affection, the same way she cares for Helen's daughters, Ruthie and Lucille, until her own lonely death at 76.

Lily and Nona Foster
Poor and set in their ways, Sylvia's two elderly sisters-in-law move from Spokane to Fingerbone to take care of Ruthie and Lucille after Sylvia's death. As their nerves and habits don't lend themselves to foster-mothering, they are delighted when a note from Sylvie arrives from Montana.

Helen Foster Stone
Years before the novel's action, Helen flees Fingerbone with Reginald Stone, and Sylvia never accepts her daughter's Nevada wedding as legitimate. After almost eight years away, Helen suddenly returns from Seattle and leaves her daughters, Ruthie and Lucille, on Sylvia's porch before driving herself off a cliff and into the same lake that claimed her father's life.

Sylvie Fisher
Helen's younger sister is a tall, gentle thirty-five-year-old woman who evades questions about her marriage. Although she has spent her adult life as a drifter, she returns to Fingerbone to take care of her nieces. Childless and childlike, Sylvie's inability to keep house doesn't interfere with her attachment to Ruthie and Lucille. But Fingerbone's sheriff doesn't agree, and, all the while, the bridge across the lake beckons.

The opening words of Housekeeping—"My name is Ruth"—is almost the only time the novel's narrator isn't called Ruthie. A solitary and sensitive child, Ruthie becomes a tall, gangly young woman who admits that she has "never distinguished readily between thinking and dreaming."

Ruthie's red-haired younger sister is embarrassed by Sylvie's eccentric habits and longs to go to Boston just "because it isn't Fingerbone." By the novel's end, she is perhaps the loneliest character of all.

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