When Marilynne Robinson published Housekeeping in 1980, I was graduating from high school. By the time she proved to the world that she had not done a Harper Lee on us with the appearance of Gilead in 2004, I had achieved the rank of full professor at my college. Twenty-four years is a long time for a novelist to go between works. At times it seems that Joyce Carol Oates doesn’t go twenty-four weeks between novels.
I recall, after reading Gilead shortly after its publication, seeking out a copy of Housekeeping. To be fair, I didn’t try quite as hard as I might have, but I did discover that my library didn’t own a copy and that the few offered for sale on Amazon were absurdly priced. The charming novel had gone out of print only to be resurrected when the Pulitzer committee tapped the second book for the award in 2005.
Is “charming” really the best word for Robinson’s first novel? Certainly there are moments within its pages that charm, but the overall feeling I derive from the book is as chilly as the waters of the lake that looms like a malignant character throughout the story. In fact, the idea of the book as “charming” might be a very good starting point. “Charming” suggests a positive connection, a development of sympathy between some character and the reader/speaker. Certainly, the reader develops a great deal of sympathy for the narrator Ruth. That sympathy comes both as she relates her feelings of abandonment after her mother’s suicide, her grandmother’s death, and her abandonment by her sister Lucille, but also in less obviously heartfelt portions of the novel, such as when she tells, at second hand (at least) of the train derailment into the lake that claims the life of the grandfather she never met.
Yet at the end of the book, after Ruth and her vagabond aunt Sylvie have fled the town of Fingerbone after torching the family home rather than risking Sylvie losing custody of Ruth to the courts, the girl explains the oddity of her later life.
We are drifters. And once you have set your foot in that path it is hard to imagine another one. Now and then I take a job as a waitress, or a clerk, and it is pleasant for a while. Sylvie and I see all the movies. But finally the imposture becomes burdensome, and obvious. Customers begin to react to my smile as if it were a grimace, and suddenly something in my manner makes them count their change.
This reader found himself charmed by the arrival of the quirky Sylvie and affronted when Lucille, suddenly turned all conformist and obsessed with appearances, rejects both her aunt and, later, her sister. I found myself rooting for the pair as the eyes of the town of Fingerbone began to look more critically upon them, as the benign attentions of the sheriff became more threatening. I even applauded their decision to burn the house and run for the open door of a box car. And then I questioned myself. Was their “erratic behavior” merely quirkiness or something more threatening? Did the nighttime escape across the long and menacing railroad bridge truly take Ruth somewhere better than she would have reached had she remained at home or gone with the sheriff when invited?
A reader could easily find a hundred Biblical Proverbs to apply to the characters of Housekeeping, proverbs about industry and willingness to listen to counsel. Starting off in cold north of Idaho, Ruth and Sylvie really never found a warm place, regardless of what latitude the rails took them to. The only human connection this pair had was to each other, in the end a rather small and bleak community in which to dwell.