Monday, April 13, 1998

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

I want to talk to you about a very special book today, and also about rereading. I just read Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping for the fourth or fifth time. It would be hard for me to overemphasize how lovely this book was for me on this reading. I remember a time when the whole idea of rereading was repellent to me. After all, there are so many books to read and so little time. Nowadays, partly because I am a teacher with a suspect memory who must reread whatever I am teaching, I spend more time each year rereading than reading for the first time. But what may have started as a necessary exercise has become in certain special cases a wonderful treat. Some books, though wonderful on the first read-through, do not hold up on rereading. Housekeeping does so well not because it is a complex book which one must read and reread in order really to understand it, to mine ever deeper for the sometimes hidden meanings, but because it reads like poetry and feels like music.

In many ways it is a simple story. Two girls who have only their mother, the absence of their father never explained in any way to the girls, are nonetheless wonderful friends to each other and seem loved by if not close to their mother. Again for reasons the reader (and the girls) must guess at, the mother drives to her own mother’s house which she has visited only once since leaving seven years before, leaves her daughters there on a screened porch, and then drives her borrowed car into the lake—the same lake that had claimed her father in an accidental death a dozen or so years before.

And thus the opening paragraph of this oddly sad and yet uplifting story:
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 Sylivia Fisher.
All of this told in a matter-of-fact voice for these girls who grow up knowing only women, and a very peculiar group of women at that.

Each time I read this book, I worry again about whether my students will like it, whether they will see the beauty, the wisdom, and fearing that if they do not, it is they I will judge, not the book—though if I had to say why it is so important, why so somehow deeply insightful, I would be hard-pressed to say, and rather angry that anyone would even have to ask.

It is their last caretaker, their last ‘mother,’ who is the most intriguing and who makes this story go. Her name is Sylvie. She is a wanderer, a loner, back in her hometown only because these girls who are strangers to her are in need, because of the unspoken ties between Sylvie and her now-dead sister. The two old aunts, themselves having lived always alone together, childless, husbandless, find themselves frightened and overwhelmed not by the bad behavior of the two girls, but by their simple, heavy presence and the dark coldness of the climate—the frozen lake, the snow that threatens to collapse the roof, the two teen-age girls who hover expectantly. The SOS that brings Sylvie home raises hopeful expectations in the aunts, and they disappear as soon as they decide that she somehow will do. Let me read just the first view of Sylvie to the girls as one old aunt escorts her into the house:
Slyvie came into the kitchen behind her, with a quiet that seemed compounded of gentleness and stealth and self-effacement. Slyvie was about thirty-five, tall, and narrowly built. She had wavy brown hair fastened behind her ears with pins, and as she stood there, she smoothed the stray hairs back, making herself neat for us. Her hair was wet, her hands were red and withered from the cold, her feet were bare except for loafers. Her raincoat was so shapeless and oversized that she must have found it on a bench. Lily and Nona glanced at each other, eyebrows raised. There was a little silence, and then Sylvie hesitantly put her icy hand on my head and said, ‘You’re Ruthie. And you're Lucille. Lucille has the lovely red hair.’
And so they meet this strange new aunt, who seldom takes off her coat (and whom they always fear is about to leave), who sits in the dark, likes to eat in the dark, prowls the nights, returning with pockets full of junk. Whose idea of housekeeping is to rinse and stack the tin cans they eat from, bring home old newspapers and magazines to save as treasures. When the girls sluff school, at first to repay an injustice by a teacher, but later because they fear to go back without excuses, they discover their aunt who seems also peculiarly truant—comfortable with the transients who hang out near the lake and the train-trestle, certainly more comfortable with them than the townspeople all of whom seem to be strangers to her despite her having grown up in this small town.
Lucille doubted that Sylvie would stay. She resembled our mother, and besides that, she seldom removed her coat, and every story she told had to do with a train or a bus station.
Still, odd and lonely woman that she appears to be, at least one of the girls, Ruthie, begins to learn from her. Slyvie seems really not to want what others wanted, seemed not at all to be in what Heidegger would call the they-self mold. She did not care about what they cared about, she did not believe what they believed, she did not care about the things they cared about, or about things at all really—except, perhaps, for a beautiful leaf, a water-worked stone, the sound of the wind in the trees. And so far is she from the values of the herd, she is not even aware of their condemnation, only vaguely aware of their stares. And if she is lonely, she is also strangely happy and self-contained. Here seems to be an existential hero not at all in the male mold, not angry and resentful and full of hate and violence. She quite simply and really does not care about what they care about. Lives as she will not because she dares to, but because she would not seriously consider living any other way.

Though now I am making the mistake of over-telling the story of the aunt, and the novel is really more the story of these two girls—of one who must opt for normalcy, who wants friends, wants clothes that do not stand out, who wants mostly just to fit in, wants to escape the sad, eccentric isolation of her mother, her aunts, the ghostly inheritance of a grandfather who rode the train into the lake. And of the other girl, Ruthie, who finds herself both strange enough and strong enough to accept her aunt’s invitation to quite a different world—in my eyes a more authentic one, a more creative one, even a truer one.

Another unique feature of this novel is that it was adapted beautifully to the screen, a rare possibility at best. Almost always, novels suffer horribly with such attempts, but somehow, due to the simplicity of this story and the flawless acting of Christine Lauti as the eccentric aunt, this novel comes off better than any other adaptation I can think of. Though you should read the novel first, do see the movie sometime. It should be cheap and easy to rent. I’m showing it to my students this very week. And if you’re not a reader or don’t have the time, rent the movie anyway. It will stand well on its own.

Let me leave you with a final quote from the book and an invitation to enjoy the peaceful loveliness of this book.
The day after Sylvie arrived, Lucille and I woke up early. It was our custom to prowl the dawn of any significant day. Ordinarily the house would belong to us for an hour or more, but that morning we found Sylvie sitting in the kitchen by the stove, with her coat on, eating oyster crackers from a small cellophane bag. She blinked at us, smiling. ‘It was nice with the light off,’ she suggested, and Lucille and I collided in our haste to pull the chain. Sylvie’s coat made us think she might be leaving, and we were ready to perform great feats of docility to keep her there.
Again, I have been reviewing the novel by Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping, reissued in 1997 by Noonday publishing. Walker Percy, the American existentialist writer says it is “...a haunting dream of a story told in a language as sharp and clear as light and air and water.” I agree.

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