Plot & Major Characters:
The narrator of Housekeeping is Ruth Stone, who recounts the story of her difficult youth and adolescence in Fingerbone, a small community isolated in the mountains of Idaho. She begins by recalling the death of her grandfather, Edmund Foster, who perished before she was born when a bridge collapsed and the train he was riding plunged into Fingerbone Lake. Consequently, Ruth’s grandmother was left to raise her daughters alone—the remainder of the novel lacks a strong male presence. During Ruth’s childhood, her father deserts the family, leaving Ruth, her sister Lucille, and their mother Helen to fend for themselves. Ruth and Lucille are subsequently abandoned by Helen, who leaves the children on her own mother’s doorstep and then commits suicide by driving into Fingerbone Lake. The girls’ grandmother, Sylvia, attempts to bring normalcy to their lives through a strict household routine. When Sylvia dies, her two spinster sisters-in-law, Lily and Nona, take over the girls’ care, but are overwhelmed when their own rigid routines are disrupted by the adolescents. Lily and Nona eventually search out and find the girls’ aunt, Sylvie Fisher, and compel her to come home to care for her nieces. Sylvie is an unpredictable vagrant who has spent years jumping trains and living on the outskirts of towns with a colorful group of homeless women. Lucille longs for a conventional life and is taken aback by Sylvie’s erratic caretaking and housekeeping. Sylvie leaves the doors of the house perpetually open, encouraging the girls to sleep outside and explore the woods. A seminal scene in the novel occurs when Lucille turns on the light during a family meal. Sylvie had argued in the past that she disliked the stark contrast of a dark window against a lighted room, but the presence of the light reveals the complete disarray of Sylvie’s homemaking skills, illuminating leaves that have gathered in the corner, piles of old newspapers and cans, and burned curtains hanging on the window that had never been replaced. Lucille eventually grows tired of life with Sylvie and leaves Ruth to live with her home economics teacher. Since Lucille had always spoken for Ruth, her abandonment is especially difficult for her sister. After Lucille’s departure, Ruth begins to fully identify with Sylvie, realizing the parallels between their shared transient histories. When their unconventional lifestyle comes to the attention of the townspeople, Sylvie is deemed an unfit guardian by the community, and a hearing is scheduled to decide if Ruth should be taken away from her. The two have become extremely close, however, and refuse to be separated under any circumstance. Rather than permit the dissolution of their makeshift, though functional, family unit, Ruth and Sylvie burn down their house and flee out of the town, escaping across the lake on a railroad bridge. The townspeople—who reject the concept of self-sufficient, ostensibly “homeless” women who can dictate their own destinies—regard Ruth and Sylvie as insane and decide that they must have drowned in the lake.
Since its publication, Housekeeping has been hailed by reviewers as a profound, engaging narrative whose lyrical prose, quiet humor, and wisdom marked the arrival of a preternaturally talented author. The language and pacing of Robinson’s prose has been praised for its precision, restraint, and cumulative power.
“Housekeeping” revolves around the theme of loss,transcience, and the social construction of family and domesticity particularly as it applies to the traditional role and relationships of women. Loss, which is pervasive in Ruth’s life and that of her ill-fated family, is reflected in the series of abandonments and tragedies that define her formative experiences, from the deaths of her grandparents to the rejections of her mother, her sister, and the residents of Fingerbone.
We first meet town and lake and the Fosters when Grandfather leaves Fingerbone on a train which “was black and sleek and elegant and was called the Fireball.” The train pulled
- “more than halfway across the bridge when the engine nosed over toward the lake and then the rest of the train slid after it into the water like a weasel sliding off a rock.”
The town with its drowned train manages to get drowned itself by the lake every spring. Ruth thinks “Looking out at the lake one could believe that the Flood never ended.”
- “If one is lost on the water, any hill is Ararat. And below is always the accumulated past, which vanishes but does not vanish, which perishes and remains.”
The past of course is the drowned train and above it, but barely, is the rickety trestle upon which, finally, Ruth and Sylvie escape from drowning in the mores and fears of the townspeople.
The real business of Housekeeping evokes the eccentric world of those who live around us but never see us, as we never see them. Sylvie has trouble with words and consecutive thoughts, not unlike a worshipper of religion. She has “no awareness of time.”
For her, hours and minutes were the names of trains — we were waiting for the 9:52. Sylvie seemed neither patient nor impatient, neither comfortable nor uncomfortable.
She collects bales of newspapers and mountains of tin-cans in the house. Her stories are disjointed, about people she may or may not have known. Always around her are the ghosts of children playing and laughing, and she seems unaware of the difference between ghosts and the real.
The reader gets to be fond of her distracted way, and when, finally, the sheriff of Fingerbone points to her, tries to take Ruth away, I find myself rooting for this half-mad, not unsaintly woman, who teaches Ruth, like her, and in the lingo of the time, “to drift.”
The work that it took to get through this novel was SERIOUS!!! Another reviewer stated that it’s like each sentence is a poem within itself. However, it’s not a poem…it’s a novel and reading pages after pages of paragraphs full of that style of writing can be too much sometimes. The story gets more interesting as it goes along and the amount of work it took to get there is worth it. I do recommend this book to anyone who does have time to read something different than usual…..