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.

Teachers may consider the ways in which these activities may be linked to other Big Read community events. Most of these projects could be shared at a local library, a student assembly, or a bookstore.

  1. Read and discuss the following description of Fingerbone:
    The people of Fingerbone and its environs were very much given to murder. And it seemed that for every pitiable crime there was an appalling accident. 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. (beginning of Chapter 9)

    Marilynne Robinson has acknowledged that her hometown of Sandpoint, Idaho, was a model for Fingerbone. Using PowerPoint, work as a team to produce a historical slideshow of Sandpoint during the 1940s and 1950s. Have students research topics such as logging and mining, hunting, weather (Was there a real flood? Fires? A snowstorm that caused houses to collapse?), railroads and railroad bridges (Was there a railroad bridge? A train accident? Does the bridge still exist?), Lake Pend Oreille, cultural/social life in town, etc. The goal might be for each student to create two or three slides for his or her topic. Students should include photographs, music, and spoken word(with appropriate permissions). The Bonner County Historical Society, Sandpoint website, and Sandpoint Magazine archives are possible resources. The finished slideshow could be presented at Big Read discussions or events around the community or displayed in the public library or another community site.

  2. Plan an evening of readings from Housekeeping. A local coffee shop that hosts open mic events might make a nice venue. Help interested students select sections of the novel to prepare as dramatic readings or monologues. Arrange for a drama coach or actors from a local theatre company to help students prepare their selections. (A local theatre company might be interested in partnering with your students and participating in this event, giving students a chance to work with seasoned actors.) Plan ahead and publicize your event.
  3. Ask a historian, folklore expert, or storyteller to give a presentation on tramps, hoboes, and boxcar drifters associated with the railroads and the Dust Bowl era. Or take the class to the local library or historical society to see photographs and artifacts related to railroad folklore. Arrange with staff ahead of time to have a variety of materials available.
  4. After students have read the novel, arrange for the class to watch the 1987 film version of Housekeeping, written and directed by Bill Forsyth. Before watching the movie, have the class read "Housekeeping at the Movies" from the the NEA Big Read Reader's Guide. Afterward, discuss the film in relation to the novel. What aspects of the novel did the film illuminate? How did the characters compare to those in the novel? Does the film succeed in presenting the essence of the story of Housekeeping? If so, how?
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