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Archive for May, 2010

Earth, water, air, and fire bind the alchemy that is Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. From the opening mention of the sod house where narrator Ruth’s grandfather grew up, the story is grounded in home and place and the departure from it. Ruth’s mother and Aunt Sylvie grew up in Fingerbone, Idaho, in a house put down “in this unlikely place” by the grandfather, who died when his train derailed into a lake from a bridge. The lake and bridge figure prominently in the bleak terrain and in the story — Ruth’s mother also plunged into the lake in a car and with intention.

Ruth and her sister Lucille come to live in their grandmother’s house in Fingerbone, where they’re raised by the grandmother, then by the grandmother’s sisters-in-law, and finally by Aunt Sylvie, who is ill-suited for housekeeping and child-rearing. The girls’ longing for family and their survival instincts make them inseparable, until they must choose between very different ways of “housekeeping.”  

Lesson: Give the weather of place a thematic role in your story

The many character introductions in the first several pages make a difficult entry into this novel. There are the girls Ruth and Lucille, a grandmother named “Sylvia,” the aunt “Sylvie,” sisters-in-law Nona and Lily, the grandfather, Ruth and Lucille’s dead mother Helen and estranged father, a friend Bernice who loaned Helen the car she drove into the lake, and more. Stay with it, patient reader. The complex family structure underpins the theme, as does the landscape and house itself. It’s a story about keeping and losing house and home and family.

As the novel progresses, the initial tangle of relationships unravels and is lost. Lucille leaves Ruth and Aunt Sylvie for a more conventional upbringing with her home economics teacher. Ruth and Aunt Sylvie escape Fingerbone to avoid legal action that could separate them. The elements, which have treated them harshly, become their allies and constant companions. They burn the house and don’t refute a news item that they’ve drowned in the lake. They ride trains, elusive and uprooted.

These passages show how elements shape character and story:

Wind  Ruth’s grandmother was a good mother and housekeeper. 

Her children slept on starched sheets under layers of quilts, and in the morning her curtains filled with light the way sails fill with wind. (p.12)

Snow  Ruth’s great-aunts are nervous and uncomfortable in their care-taking role.

Sometimes the sun would be warm enough to send a thick sheet of snow sliding off the roof, and sometimes the fir trees would shrug, and the snow would fall with surprisingly loud and earthly thuds, which would terrify my great-aunts. It was by grace of this dark and devastating weather that we were able to go very often to the lake to skate, for Lily and Nona knew that our house would fall, and hoped that we at least might be spared when it did, if only to die of pneumonia. (p.33)

Sun  Sylvie is at first a ray of hope for Ruth and Lucille.

The week after Sylvie arrived, Fingerbone had three days of brilliant sunshine and four of balmy rain. (p.60)

Air  But Sylvie doesn’t become the constant mother the girls desire.

The furtive closing of a door is a sound the wind can make a dozen times in an hour. A flow of damp air from the lake can make any house feel empty. Such dread is always mirrored upon the dread that inheres in things. For example, when Sylvie looked over the bridge she must have seen herself in the water at the foot of the trestle. But as surely as we tried to stay awake to know for certain whether she sang, or wept, or left the house, we fell asleep and dreamed that she did. (p.83)

Light  Sylvie’s strange ways intrigue the girls. They’ve learned to fend for themselves, but they crave security. Lucille eventually turns away from her aunt’s transient nature, but when Sylvie takes Ruth out on the lake in a stolen boat one night, Ruth is compelled as much as repelled by that free spirit. 

“The sun’s coming up,” [Sylvie] said. The sky above Fingerbone was a floral yellow. A few spindled clouds smoldered and glowed a most unfiery pink. And then the sun flung a long shaft over the mountain, and another, like a long-legged insect bracing itself out of its chrysalis, and then it showed above the black crest, bristly and red and improbable. In an hour it would be the ordinary sun, spreading modest and impersonal light on an ordinary world, and that thought relieved me. Sylvie continued to pull, strongly and slowly. (p.147)

Fire & wind  Sylvie and Ruth undertake a major house cleaning to impress the town people and sheriff who see Sylvie as unfit to care for Ruth. Even after Sylvie’s scheme fails, they continue to put the house in order, burning debris which has accumulated since Sylvie arrived.

Sylvie brought newspapers from the shed and we balled them up and stuck them in among the magazines and lit them with matches, and after a little while the magazines began to swell and warp and to page themselves and finally to ascend the spiraling air. That was a pretty day…We could watch the heat from the fire pull and tease the air out of shape, stretching the fabric of dimension and repose with its furious ascending. The magazine pages went black, and the print and the dark parts of pictures turned silvery black. Weightless and filigreed, they spiraled to a giddy height, till some current caught them in the upper air, some high wind we could not feel assumed them. (p.199)

Wind  Ruth chooses transience with Sylvie and never sees Lucille again, but she imagines her in the old house, refurbished after the fire, or settled elsewhere. Ruth passes by her grandmother’s house on the train but never gets off, though she says she would like to see the people who live there.

“Seeing them would expel poor Lucille, who has, in my mind, waited there in a fury of righteousness, cleansing and polishing, all these years. She thinks she hears someone on the walk, and hurries to open the door, too eager to wait for the bell. It is the mailman, it is the wind, it is nothing at all. Sometimes she dreams that we come walking up the road in our billowing raincoats, hunched against the cold, talking together in words she cannot quite understand. (p.217)

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In John Updike’s story Pigeon Feathers and short novel Of the Farm, an 80-acre farm plays a central role. The fictional place is based on Updike’s mother’s birthplace, a property near Plowville, Pennsylvania, where Updike moved with his family at the age of thirteen. The farm had been owned by Updike’s grandparents, sold by his grandfather when the family moved to Shillington (a town renamed Olinger in Updike’s stories), and repurchased by Updike’s mother. The author spent his formative teen years there, isolated and encouraged by his mother to write.

Lesson: Engage your fictional place in conflict, just as you do with characters, to make it come alive 

The fact that a fictional place is based on a real place is not reason enough to make readers believe it. In Updike’s work, the farm is an animate presence, consistent one story to the other. When I read Pigeon Feathers I developed loyalty to its cast of inhabitants, including a boy named David who is a stand-in for Updike. In Of the Farm, I initially felt as if the new inhabitants were imposters. The Updike stand-in here is a man named Joey, who visits the farm on a mission to help his mother and gain her acceptance of his new wife. In Pigeon Feathers, the farm and David’s relationship to it had been so convincing that I initially found myself wondering: What right did Joey have to use David’s home for his own childhood memories? But Joey stakes his claim.

This liveliness of place comes not just from Updike’s descriptions, such as this narration by Joey: We went up a sharp little rise and there, on the level crest where Schoelkopf’s weathered mailbox stood knee-deep in honeysuckle and poison ivy, its flopped lid like a hat being tipped, my wife first saw the farm. It comes also from giving the farm a role in the story; it’s a source of pleasure and pain, love and conflict.

In the Pigeon Feathers, there is friction between David’s parents over the farm and in Of the Farm, even though Joey’s father has died, the friction that had been between his parents lingers as a palpable force threatening Joey’s new marriage. Early in Of the Farm, Joey expresses his relationship with it: …whenever I returned, after no matter how great a gap of time, to this land, the acres flowed outward from me like a form of boasting. But he lives with the memories of conflict between his parents caused by the farm and considers this possibility: … my mother had undervalued and destroyed my father… had brought him to a farm which was in fact her giant lover, and had thus warped the sense of the masculine within me, her son.

When Joey mows the field, sweating in the hot sun, his technique is: to slice in one ecstatic straight thrust, up the middle and then to narrow the two halves, whittling now at one and now at the other, entertaining myself with flanking maneuvers acres wide and piecemeal mop-ups. His mother’s method is: to embrace the field, tracing its border and then on a slow square spiral closing in until one small central patch was left. Their differing styles with the tractor amplify their personal differences, as Joey describes: I imitated war, she love. In the end, our mowed fields looked the same, except that my mother’s would have more scraggly spots where she had lifted the cutter over a detected pheasant’s nest or had spared an especially vivid patch of wildflowers.

Joey’s mother is married to the farm. The only way she’ll leave it is through death. The mowing metaphor foreshadows the negotiated truce that the inevitable event will bring. He will inherit the farm—his mother’s farm—with all its history of sorrow and joy.

Lesson: Animate the landscape by putting it “in the body”

A masterful writer wouldn’t be content with the “vivid” descriptor in the above sentence, and Updike is masterful. He has Joey convey the liveliness of the wildflowers: Black-eyed susans, daisy fleabane, chicory, goldenrod, butter-and-eggs each flower of which was like a tiny dancer leaping, legs together—all of these scudded past the tractor wheels.

As with the writing of character, putting the landscape “in the body” makes the fictional place real and felt. As Joey mows on the tractor, his senses heighten to the landscape, now become erotic…Crickets sprang crackling away from the slow-turning wheels; butterflies loped and bobbed above the flattened grass as the hands of a mute concubine might examine, flutteringly, the corpse of her giant lover. The sun grew higher. The metal hood acquired a nimbus of heat waves that visually warped each stalk. The tractor body was flecked with foam and I, rocked back and forth on the iron seat shaped like a woman’s hips, alone in nature, as hidden under the glaring sky as at midnight, excited by destruction, weightless, discovered in myself a swelling which I idly permitted to stand, thinking of Peggy. My wife is a field.

Lesson: Orient the reader 

The action of Pigeon Feathers centers around the barn and house, while that of Of the Farm revolves around the field, garden, berry patches, and house. The same structures and natural elements appear in both the story and novel, but in different proportion. The fictional surroundings in both feel real and consistent.

As writers, we can map our fictional places or use other methods to discover and know these places well before or during the writing process. As readers, it’s not essential that we are able to map a place in order to believe it, but with Updike we could. Consistency of place—an author’s grasp of direction, scale, weather, light, landscape, landmarks, flora, fauna, architecture—orients readers and allows us to feel “at home” with the story.

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