Critics and fans alike have made much over the fact that more than two decades passed between Marilynne Robinson's first two novels: Housekeeping (1980) and Gilead (2004). But during that long interim, Robinson wrote two works of nonfiction, Mother Country (1989) and The Death of Adam (1998), in addition to many essays and book reviews for various magazines and journals.
Robinson began writing Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State, and Nuclear Pollution, a finalist for the National Book Award, while on a teaching fellowship at the University of Kent in England. She had learned of a nuclear facility called Sellafield, located on the Cumbrian coast. Sellafield not only produced nuclear energy, but it yearly piped enormous amounts of radioactive waste into the Irish Sea. Nearly two percent of children in the village closest to the plant were dying of leukemia, but environmental groups and the media stood by. However, Robinson's central focus in Mother Country is not on the crime itself. Instead, her aim was to draw attention to a culture that would so passively allow its own destruction and to a state that would consciously sacrifice its own people to turn a profit.
Robinson's collection of ten critical essays, The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought, ranges from Darwinism to John Calvin, from Dietrich Bonhoeffer to American Protestantism. In it she explores the devastating effect of modern philosophy on humanity and passionately argues for a restored morality, where humanity is no longer reconciled to routine genocide and worsening poverty.
Gilead, Robinson's epistolary second novel, is set in 1956 in the plains of western Iowa. The narrator, Reverend John Ames, is an aging Congregationalist minister who keeps a journal for his young son—fathered late in life—who will have to grow up without him. Robinson imagined the novel as "an old man at a desk writing to a child who's playing on the floor beside him, but writing as if to him as an adult." Because the father will not be alive to speak to his adult son directly, he pens a series of letters to convey the stories of his own father and grandfather. Ames describes the sacred bond between father and son and the eternal human struggle to learn how to forgive and how to love.
Through his journal entries, Ames bequeaths his son a father and a lineage and, in so doing, a moral vision: "There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient." Herself a practicing Congregationalist, Robinson has said, "The assumption behind any theology that I've ever been familiar with is that there is a profound beauty in being, simply in itself."
Robinson took a sabbatical from teaching at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop in the fall of 2007 to complete her third novel, Home (2008). Home shares its setting and some characters with Gilead. The children of John Ames's closest friend, Reverend Robert Boughton, return to the town of Gilead to care for their dying father. As with her previous novels, Robinson's silky writing and fully wrought characters create a story that's both artistically elegant and emotionally meaningful.
The novel Housekeeping doesn't exactly scream major motion picture. It's not a screaming sort of book, which makes the mere existence of a 1987 film version improbable enough, and the picture's fidelity to the novel and sly wit a small miracle. If anything, the Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth loves the book too much—pouring long descriptive passages into voice-over—and doesn't trust himself quite enough.
Inheriting a role originally destined for Diane Keaton, Christine Lahti slips into Sylvie with all the rumpled ease of Sylvie herself shrugging into her ever-present overcoat. If Lahti appears perhaps overly fresh-faced for a woman who's spent years dodging "bulls," or railroad detectives, she more than makes up for it with her perfectly calibrated obliviousness to polite society. Her Sylvie is a woman out of step. Where most actresses might have played her a bit slow, just slightly behind whatever conversation she's in, Lahti gives her an eager quickness, as if she already knows what ridiculous thing you're going to say, and can't understand why you'd want to.
Shot in British Columbia—with a railroad bridge flush against the sky like a second horizon—Forsyth's respectful, bemused film of Housekeeping just goes to show that a ravishing setting and original characters can trump a not conspicuously cinematic story any day. The picture hums with economical grace notes, from a nighttime train seen solely in the fire-lit glow it registers on Sylvie's face to the comic bump and clink of china, floating ankle-deep in a flooded house.
Housekeeping is a product of British Columbia in more ways than one, since it dates from the English producer David Puttnam's brief, doomed reign atop Columbia Pictures. Puttnam's old colleague Forsyth falters only in his casting of the young sisters, who let the film sag when Lahti's away. But Housekeeping makes a fine double bill with any of Forsyth's other sweet comedies, including but not limited to his masterpiece, Local Hero (1983). Then again, better to show them one at a time, with this odd gem off by itself, a film apart.
"For even things lost in a house abide, like forgotten sorrows and incipient dreams."
—Marilynne Robinson from Housekeeping