Housekeeping, published in 1980, and nominated for a Pulitzer, appears on many top 100 novels of all time lists. I am not surprised. It is truly a treat.
But it is a sad tale. A coming of age story, I suppose, it is all about loss and identity, but told with a poetic lyricism that is delicious.
It opens with a train, carrying many residents of Fingerbone, Idaho, plunging into a local river, killing dozens. The event signals that death and loss will figure prominently in the tale to come. But there is much more than that going on here.
Molly (16), Helen (15), and Sylvie (13), daughters to Sylvia and Edmund Foster, lose their father in that crash. Molly is later lost to religiosity abroad, Helen will elope to Seattle, returning in seven years with two girls of her own, no husband and a determination to drive her borrowed car off a cliff to her death. Why did Helen drive off the cliff? We are never told. But she does so when returning to Fingerbone sans husband, so one might presume that the loss of her marriage might figure in it. Sylvia raises the girls until her own passing five years on. At that point the peripatetic Sylvie is summoned to return to Fingerbone and undertake the raising of her nieces. But Aunt Sylvie shares some of the darkness that plagued their mother, adding a dangerous flightiness, and proves to be less than an ideal foster parent. As Lucille grows, she seeks a more “normal” life than Sylvie can provide, while Ruthie is drawn into Sylvie’s aura, encouraging her already borderline anti-social tendencies.
The story is told from Ruth’s (Ruthie’s) point of view, her words manifesting her actual thoughts, and not her speech, per se. Her imagination is a lively place. We see Sylvie as a somewhat sympathetic sort, eccentric for certain, and sometimes alarming in her tenuous grip on the world of real people, but not ill-meaning. Although Ruthie loves Lucille, she sees her as a typical, hyper-conformist teenager, over-focused on externals like hair and clothing. Lucille wants to remain anonymous by fitting in. Lucille leaves the household to live with her home ec teacher. Ruth is an outsider, clinging ever closer to Sylvie.
The opening line of the book “My name is Ruth” echoes for at least one analyst (Professor Amy Hungerford) “Call me Ishmael” spoken by another outsider. Hungerford sees further resonance with the biblical Ruth, who, like Ruth in Housekeeping, is forced to wander. It sounds like a stretch to me, as it is Sylvie who is the true wanderer here, and Ruthie who follows in her wake. Hungerford says that Robinson was much taken with the transcendentalists, and that informs the work. I could see it in passages where characters seemed to merge with their landscapes, a feeling of oneness I have far too rarely been privileged to share.
There is much here about belonging, about identifying, with family, with place. Lucille and Ruthie endure a move from Seattle that entails the loss of their father, the loss of their mother and the loss of their grandmother. If the presence of family is so fragile, what is there to hold on to? How many losses can one endure before cracking under the weight, like the poorly designed houses in Fingerbone that cannot cope with the local snow accumulations?
How can it be that absence can create such presence? There is a wonderful passage in which Ruth wonders at Lucille constantly looking for signs of her missing sister, and by looking, maintaining her presence.
Is it that only when one can comfortably belong, feel seen, that one can finally break out, become one’s self?
Words and language figure in Robinson’s imagery. Leaves that have accumulated in their house are mixed with bits of paper offering inscrutable phrases, “Powers meet” and “I think of you.” In another scene, Lucille asks Ruth to look up “pinking shears” in an old dictionary. Ruth finds that her grandfather had pressed flowers into the book on the page corresponding to their names. Contrast the practical, mechanical significance of learning how to use a tool with the beauty of the unexpected flowers.