My name is Ruth. I grew up with my younger sister, Lucille, under the care of my grandmother, Mrs. Sylvia Foster, and when she died, of her sisters-in-law, Misses Lily and Nona Foster, and when they fled, of her daughter, Mrs. Sylvie Fisher.
This is how the story of Ruthie begins in Housekeeping, taking us in the little town of Fingerbone, Idaho, yet, it is also the liberating story of a disciplined Marylenne Robinson, whose passion for metaphors translated into a modern classic. Once again, I marvel at my own ignorance and the fortuitous discovery of great writers that I have never known before. Not only did I rejoice at my own finding, but I also felt small while reading this grand book. Marilynne Robinson’s first novel, Housekeeping, published in 1980, came strong from the very beginning. It was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, yet it won the PEN/ Faulkner Award. The book has a frightening beauty that resides both in the storyline and the vivid descriptions of nature. Housekeeping, much to its ordinary and apparently easy nature, is rather a burden for the strong, a skill that we come to define as we grow into adulthood. However, to certain people, housekeeping and sticking to a certain place is an unbearable task they get to perform, yet never to enjoy. When the pressure is beyond endurance, they flee the house and the place as their uneasiness comes to life.
Edmund, husband of Sylvia, meets his maker on the bottom of the lake near their home, the town of Fingerbone. Never to be found, either man or train, Edmund Foster lives only in the prefabricated memories of his grandchild, Ruthie, as a tall man, of few words, whose death in the train derailing triggered a chain of unfortunate events. The wife and the three daughters, Helen, Molly and Sylvie, are left to cope with loss and their grief takes on different forms, estranging them from one another and the rest of the world. Molly takes the path of missionary work at the end of the world, Helen marries into unhappiness and one day drops her two daughters -Ruthie and Lucille- on her mother's porch and drives herself into the lake, whereas the drifter, Sylvie Foster Fisher, takes a halt from her transience and comes to take care of her nieces, upon her mother's death. First left in the care of the grandmother's two sisters-in-law, aunts Lily and Nona, the little girls' ephemeral sense of normalcy is shattered by the aunts' weirdness and then by their younger aunt Sylvie's eccentricity. Lucille grows into ordinary adulthood, whereas Ruthie comes to identify herself with Sylvie's free spirit. A transient, Sylvie is full of tales on the road, of countless people she comes to shortly know and take their stories upon herself. Homemaking, the wintry landscape, the isolation, keeping herself and her sister safe and the house is too much to bear for Lucille who escapes into the saving arms of a school teacher but also for Sylvie who fails in her caretaker role. Ruthie finds herself caught in the middle-growing apart from her sister, always at a loss for words, at ease in the silent company of her aunt and nature itself.
Robinson is a crafty painter of nature and landscapes, of the driving force behind everything that surrounds us and Ruthie, her character, is the voice she uses to beautify the greatness of nature, her transparent eyeball. Ralph Waldo Emerson described the “transparent eyeball” in his 1836 essay titled Nature. His rather mystical approach to nature echoes in Robinson's novel, especially in the episode when Sylvie and Ruthie steal a boat and go to a remote island where the former claims to have seen and tried to feed the ghosts of some children living in an abandoned house. Much to the strangeness of the idea, the entire scene is so vividly depicted that it becomes difficult not to believe that there are certain mystical forces in nature.
Water is the driving force of the novel. It keeps the town alive, it takes lives and it hides the darkest secrets. The lake is old and full of mystery, it is a playground for the people in winter, a source of life for both the people and the animals living around and it is Sylvie and Ruth's escape plan. Both lake and the nature itself are main characters in Robinson's novel where humans are transient, whereas water and land are immortal:
If one pried up earth with a stick on those days, one found massed shafts of ice, slender as needles and pure as spring water.
The two girls' struggle into adulthood is hard and they come to learn the high price of loss. Death becomes a natural matter, difficult to grasp, never explained, yet more alive in their lives than any other certainty. Their mother's suicide, their grandmother's death, their grandfather's disappearance teach them to survive, even though they choose different paths in life. Lucille rebels against her aunt's bohemian ways and joins the rows of ordinary, proper life, whereas Ruthie drifts away from school, normalcy and life itself, joining her aunt's transient ways. Their realistic story, full of praise of the wonders of nature, depicts the manner in which events shape us into adulthood and our paths in life. The frailty of human nature is never tediously portrayed in Robinson's novel; it rather feels alive and raw, on a journey through life as it is, in painful glimpses at its truth and essence. Apart from the lovely story and her talent for drawing the greatness of nature, Robinson has a soothing, humane voice that softly speaks to us of grace and redemption and all we can do is bow to her generosity.