Book Review Wednesday: Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping

8 November 2006

Before embarking on the reading of Moby Dick, I had decieded to read Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping.  Let me say, in the interests of disclosure, that Robinson was my wife’s teacher in graduate school and she helped baptize our son, so I may be a little biased.

Housekeeping is a book about a place as much as it is about the people who inhabit this place.  The place?  A small, Idaho town called Fingerbone on the edge of a glacial lake which has been the site of two tragedies in the life of the Stone family, the first being a spectacular train derailment and the second being a suicide.  The train derailment killed the narrator’s grandfather and the suicide was the narrator’s mother.

Who are these people then, the Stone family?  One thing that is remarkable is that they are almost all women.  With the exception of the grandfather, who is dead by the book’s opening, and the sheriff and school principal, both minor characters late in the book, the rest of the characters are women.

Like most of Robinson’s writing, Housekeeping is remarkably quiet.  Her prose is not showy or bombastic, but it is taut, precise, and, permit the overworn adjective, luminous.  Although the book is filled with passages and scenes concerned with the water, especially the lightless depths of Fingerbone’s lake, and with the encompassing darkness of night, what I remember about the novel is light.  The life of this small, modest and, in many ways, unremarkable family sheds light into the mind of Ruth, the narrator, into the Stone family dynamics, and into the relationship between place and the way our minds are shaped by it.

Ruth is an awkward child who seems far more perceptive and capable than anyone knows, or at least cares to know.  The Stone family is a unit characterized by unpredictable ebbs and flows, like a body of water whose tides are impossible to anticipate or gauge until the water have either swept out or risen.  Ruth’s aunt, Sylvie, becomes Ruth and her sister Lucille’s guardian about halfway through the book, and in many ways illustrates how one’s life shapes one’s rhythms and patterns.  Although Sylvie grew up in Fingerbone and is as mesmerized by the lake as Ruth is, she was also a drifter, a freight train rider, and those trains have left their imprint.  Even though she lives in the relative stability and security of the Stone family home, Sylvie still sleeps above the sheets and with her shoes on, as if she were still riding the rails.

Although these examples illustrate, to some extent, the enlightening nature of the book, they fail to demonstrate the book’s luminosity.  And I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to do so, even if I wanted to.  Some of the simplest scenes —one in which the sisters have a disagreement over a dictionary and a dress pattern— are lyrical as well as meaningful, accesible without being totally descipherable.

The beginning of the book is a little slow, not quite as engaging as the opening of Robinson’s second novel Gilead, but perseverance is rewarded by the latter three-quarters of the book, which moves quickly and is hard to put down.  The eighth chapter is particularly captivating.  I will probably have to read it again.

Ultimately, Robinson is an author who deserves to be re-read, not because she is difficult but because she is rich.  Anyone who has read her non-fiction, the commendable The Death of Adam as well as the procession of essays recently published in Harper’s, the American Scholar, and elsewhere, will recognize this.  Robinson is brilliant, allusive, and compassionate.  Reading her is an exercise in moral edification.

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One Response to “Book Review Wednesday: Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping”

  1. Beth Says:

    Agreed!

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