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)