Having spent the beginning of my life in small city in the middle of the Texas prairie, I’m accustomed to long drives through the country, across barren stretches of land where the only human structures between towns (and often within those towns’ borders) are typically farm houses, barns, churches and other random buildings in various stages of abandonment and decay.
The world of Marilynne Robinson’s 1980 novel Housekeeping, which is set in rural Idaho in the 1950s (though is overall evocative of a much earlier time in American history), brought to mind my own travels across rustic middle America — specifically that act of wondering “what happened there?” as I would pass a tilted, weathered old habitation out in the middle of a field in a place that, for me, has no name.
The setting of the novel, the fictional town of Fingerbone, is the figurative end-of-the-line for many of the novel’s travelers. The opening of the book describes a catastrophic derailing of a train: Edmund Foster, the story’s prime mover (his rather arbitrary elocation out west sets into motion the family’s rise and fall in Fingerbone), plunges to an irrecoverable, watery grave along his fellow passengers when the train he’s riding skips its rails and goes over the edge of the Fingerbone lake bridge to be swallowed whole by the water.
In our modern world of deep-sea diving equipment and radar technology, it would be pretty easy to find a train full of corpses at the bottom of a meager lake. And you’d think even in the early 20th century they wouldn’t have that much trouble finding an underwater train. But the permanence of human loss is a strong theme throughout Housekeeping. When people are gone, they’re gone.
A similar and no less permanent loss occurs when Ruth and her sister Lucille lose their mother to suicide; after dropping the girls off with their grandmother, she drives her borrowed car off a cliff and into the lake, leaving as her legacy only unanswerable questions about who she really was.
“Housekeeping,” the verb, is repeatedly used to denote the process caretaking of the house and of raising Ruth and her sister, Lucille –a process enacted by a series of adults that begins with their grandmother and, for the main action of the novel, is undertaken by their aunt Sylvie, a flighty and rather “touched” woman who takes respite from her life as a train-hopping transient to take care of the girls.
Under Sylvie’s eccentric care, Ruth (following Sylvie’s model) drifts farther away from the real world of school, church and, basically, other people, while Lucille rebels and strives to join the realm of proper society.
The plot is scant in terms of big events. Most of the action takes place in and around the family house. The excitement in reading Housekeeping comes from Robinson’s elegant, evocative and occasionally sardonic writing. Winsome and elegiac but never sentimental or boring, Robinson’s narrative voice through Ruth is imbued with the naive wonder at nature of a 19th century Romantic poet without all the hot air. Instead, the story is told with a solid sense of realism and an acute sense of loss and longing. When people leave our world, when their stories pass on, we are left with unanswerable questions that haunt our own experience of life and ultimately shape the fragile, endlessly searching characters we become.
The title, Housekeeping, is ironic. Try as we might to cling to things in the physical world, things like flood waters, devastating winter storms, and human frailty (these are the main forces of nature in the novel) are always ready to rush in and tear them away. By nature or by God’s design, life is transient. We only catch glimpses of the ultimately inaccessible truth as we pass it from a distance, like an old farm house on the edge of a highway.
I read this book as part of the Kansas City Public Library’s Big Read program. Sponsored by the NEA, the Big Read aims to get large groups of people in the same cities nationwide reading and discussing one book all together. Robinson comes in person to the central library on Wednesday, May 12, for the final event in the Big Read series, and I’m looking forward to hearing her read from and talk about her truly magnificent book. More than that, I’m looking forward to reading her other major novel, Gilead.