Housekeeping (Robinson)

Marilynne Robinson, 1980
Macmillan Picador
224 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780312424091

Winner, 1982 PEN/Hemingway Award

A modern classic, Housekeeping is the story of Ruth and her younger sister, Lucille, who grow up haphazardly, first under the care of their competent grandmother, then of two comically bumbling great-aunts, and finally of Sylvie, the eccentric and remote sister of their dead mother.

The family house is in the small town of Fingerbone on a glacial lake in the Far West, the same lake where their grandfather died in a spectacular train wreck and their mother drove off a cliff to her death. It is a town "chastened by an outsized landscape and extravagant weather, and chastened again by an awareness that the whole of human history had occurred elsewhere." Ruth and Lucille's struggle toward adulthood beautifully illuminates the price of loss and survival, and the dangerous and deep undertow of transcience. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio 
Birth—November 26, 1943
Where—Sandpoint, Idaho, USA
Education—B.A., Brown University
Awards—PEN/Hemingway Award;National Book Critics Circle Award; Pulitzer Prize; Orange Prize 
Currently—Iowa City, Iowa

Marilynne Robinson was born and raised in Idaho, where her family has lived for several generations. She recieved a B.A. from Brown University in 1966 and a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Washington in 1977.

Housekeeping, her first novel, was published in 1981 and won the PEN/Hemingway Award for First Fiction and the American Academy and Institute's Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Award. Mother Country, an examination of Great Britain's role in radioactive environmental pollution, was published in 1989. Robinson published Gilead in 2004 and Home in 2008. Home won the 2009 Orange Prize. She lives in Iowa City, Iowa, with her family. (From the publisher.)

For someone who has labored long in the literary vineyard, Marilynne Robinson has produced a remarkably slim oeuvre. However, in this case, quality clearly trumps quantity. Her 1980 debut, Housekeeping, snagged the PEN/Hemingway Award for best first novel and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Twenty-four years later, her follow-up novel, Gilead, won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Ambassador Book Award, and the Pulitzer Prize. And in between, her controversial extended essay Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State and Nuclear Pollution (1989) was shortlisted for the National Book Award.

Robinson is far from indolent. She teaches at several colleges and has written several articles for Harper's, Paris Review, the New York Times Book Review, and other publications. Still, one wonders—especially in the face of her great critical acclaim—why she hasn't produced more full-length works. When asked about these extended periods of literary dormancy, Robinson told Barnes &, "I feel as if I have to locate my own thinking landscape... I have to do that by reading—basically trying to get outside the set of assumptions that sometimes seems so small or inappropriate to me." What that entails is working through various ideas that often don't develop because, as she says, "I couldn't love them."

Still, occasionally Robinson is able to salvage something important from the detritus—for example, Gilead's central character, Reverend John Ames. "I was just working on a piece of fiction that I had been fiddling with," Robinson explains. "There was a character whom I intended as a minor character... he was a minister, and he had written a little poem, and he transformed himself, and he became quite different—he became the narrator. I suddenly knew a great deal about him that was very different from what I assumed when I created him as a character in the first place."

This tendency of Robinson's to regard her characters as living, thinking beings may help to explain why her fictional output is so small. While some authors feel a deep compulsion to write daily, approaching writing as a job, Robinson depends on inspiration which often comes from the characters themselves. She explains, "I have to have a narrator whose voice tells me what to do—whose voice tells me how to write the novel."

As if to prove her point, in 2008, Robinson crafted the luminous novel Home around secondary characters from Gilead: John Ames's closest friend, Reverend Robert Boughton, his daughter Glory, and his reprobate son Jack. Paying Robinson the ultimate compliment, Kirkus Reviews declared that the novel "[c]omes astonishingly close to matching its amazing predecessor in beauty and power."

However, the deeply spiritual Robinson is motivated by a more personal directive than the desire for critical praise or bestsellerdom. Like the writing of Willa Cather—or, more contemporaneously, Annie Dillard—her novels are suffused with themes of faith, atonement, and redemption. She equates writing to prayer because "it's exploratory and you engage in it in the hope of having another perspective or seeing beyond what is initially obvious or apparent to you." To this sentiment, Robinson's many devoted fans can only add: Amen.

• Robinson doesn't just address religion in her writing. She serves as a deacon at the Congregational Church to which she belongs.

• One might think that winning a Pulitzer Prize could easily go to a writer's head, but Robinson continues to approach her work with surprising humility. In fact, her advice to aspiring writers is to always "assume your readers are smarter than you are."

• Robinson is no stranger to controversy. Mother Country, her indictment of the destruction of the environment and those who feign to protect it, has raised the ire of Greenpeace, which attempted to sue her British publisher for libel. (Author bio from Barnes & Noble.)

Book Reviews
The language is so precise, so distilled and so beautiful one does not want to miss any pleasure it might yield up to patience. — The New York Times Books of the Century
Charles McGrath - The New York Times

(Audio version.) Their lives spun off the tilting world like thread off a spindle," says Ruthie, the novel's narrator. The same may be said of Becket Royce's subtle, low-keyed reading. The interwoven themes of loss and love, longing and loneliness-"the wanting never subsided"-require a cool, almost impersonal touch. Royce narrates natural and manmade catastrophe and ruin as the author offers them: with a sort of watery vagueness engulfing extraordinary events. Occasionally this leads Royce to sound sleepy or to glide over humor. But she expresses Ruthie's story without any irksome effort to sound childlike, and she avoids the pitfall of dramatizing other characters, such as the awkward sheriff, the whispery insubstantiality of Aunt Sylvie or the ladies bearing casseroles to lure Ruthie away from Aunt Sylvie and into their concept of normality. Originally published in 1980 and filmed in 1987, Housekeeping is finally on audio because of Robinson's new Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Gilead. The novel holds up remarkably and painfully well, and the language remains searching and sonorous. Anatole Broyard wrote back then: "Here is a first novel that sounds as if the author has been treasuring it up all her life...." And because the author's rhythms, images and diction are so original and dense, this audio is a treasure for listeners who have or haven't read the book.
Publishers Weekly

Discussion Questions 
1. Why do you think Marilynne Robinson has chosen Housekeeping as the title for her novel? What does the concept of housekeeping mean to Sylvie? To the girls' grandmother? To Lucille? Why is the idea of housekeeping such an important one in this book?

2. How do the geography and character of Fingerbone mold and shape the lives of the people who live there? What does Ruth mean when she says that Fingerbone was "chastened" (p. 62)? How does the fact that Fingerbone is "shallow-rooted" (p. 177), a "meager and difficult place" (p. 178), affect Ruth and her family?

3. "So long as you look after your health," their grandmother tells Ruth and Lucille, "and own the roof above your head, you're as safe as anyone can be, God willing" (p. 27). Do the experiences of her daughters and granddaughters confirm or refute this opinion?

4. Do you find that the three generations of Foster women — the grandmother, Sylvie and her sisters, and Ruth and Lucille — are certain unusual or eccentric qualities? Do they have similar attitudes toward men and marriage? Do you notice a family resemblance between these women? Why might they, as a family, have kept themselves isolated from the rest of the community?

5. After the death of Edmund Foster, the women of the Foster family inhabit a world entirely removed from masculine influence. What effect does this have on their lives and characters? Why do you think Sylvie and Helen eventually reject their own husbands so completely?

6. Why do you think that Sylvie ventured out onto the railroad bridge (p. 81)? Was it from simple curiosity, as she assures the girls, or is it possible that she was actually thinking of killing herself, of dying in the lake like her sister and father? Where else in the novel can you find images of drowning?

7. Lucille, Ruth believes, thinks that Ruth and Sylvie are alike. Do you find that Ruth is really like Sylvie, or does she come to resemble her during the course of the story? If so, why?

8. At what point in the novel do you begin to notice the differences between Ruth and Lucille? Is Lucille's wish for a 'normal' life evident early in the story, or does it take hold only as she reaches adolescence? What is the significance of Ruth's and Lucille's dreams (pp. 118-20)? What does each dream say about the dreamer's character and eventual destiny?

9. Housekeeping is told through Ruth's very distinctive point of view. Do you feel, as she seems to, that Lucille's defection from the family unit was an act of emotional dishonesty and betrayal? Or do you think that Lucille's decision was the only way she could save herself. What is Lucille's attitude toward Ruth? Does Lucille purposely leave Ruth behind, or does she try to save her?

10. If you were one of Sylvie's acquaintances or neighbors, you might consider her mad. After seeing her through Ruth's eyes, do you believe that she is in fact mad? Which of the characters in the book do you think are mad? Which ones do you think are sane?

11. What happens to Ruth during the day she spends alone at the abandoned house in the mountains (chap. 8)? How does this experience affect the direction she will take in life? How does her relationship with Sylvie change at this point?

12. Do you agree with the sheriff that Ruth would be better off separated from Sylvie, in a "normal" household? Do you believe that if he were to succeed in separating her from Sylvie at this point, Ruth would grow up to lead a normal life?

13. "Everything that falls upon the eye is apparition, a sheet dropped over the world's true workings" (p. 116). What is Ruth saying in the long paragraph which contains this sentence, and how does this central idea of illusion, the unreality of reality, contribute to her leaving Fingerbone with Sylvie?

14. Do you think that Ruth would have become a transient had she never met Sylvie? When Ruth leaves Fingerbone with Sylvie at the end of the novel, is it wittingly or unwittingly?

15. One of the lessons Ruth has learned from her early life, and from Sylvie, is that all things are impermanent: "the appearance of relative sotidity in my grandmothers house was deceptive . . . It is better to have nothing, for at last even our bones will fall. It is better to have nothing" (pp. 158-59). And, "once alone, it is impossible to believe that one could ever have been otherwise" (p. 157). Do you find this point of view convincing? Why has Lucille, obviously an intelligent young woman, not received the same message from their shared childhood?

16. Ruth's life has been permanently shaped by her grief at her mothers abandonment and death. Sylvie and Helen, too, suffered from the shocking loss of a parent. "Memory is the sense of loss, and loss pulls us after it," Ruth reflects (p. 194). Do you see the events of Housekeeping as springing primarily from grief and loss? Can the novel be seen as a story about the different ways in which people cope, or fail to cope, with grief?

17. "Even the illusion of perimeters fails when families are separated" (p. 198). What does the concept of "family" mean to the various members of the Foster family? To which people is the family most important, and why is it so overwhelmingly important to them? Which of the characters is ultimately willing to sacrifice the family and his or her own place within it?

18. Why do Sylvie and Ruth attempt to burn down the house at the end of the novel?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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