Book Review: Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

It is funny how when we look back through memory things shift into such perspective that we are easily able to identify specific decisions and moments which made great impacts on our lives. I have been reading some posts from Brain Pickings and it seems this is a general feeling. When I switched my major from Business Management to English Literature my life literally changed. I felt it did because of the fear and excitement that filled me up. Looking back now I see that it was the first "crazy" life decision I made. It bought me the courage to delve into poetry, discover photography, read some inspiring minds, make some lifelong friends, submit my poems for publication, start this blog, and start Mawusi. It was through this first audacious move in college that I met Marilynne Robinson's Ruthie in Housekeeping. Even before I opened the page, I loved the image on the cover. It would come to mind, in grad school, when I learn about the sublime.  Introducing the novel, my professor said Robinson took a long time with her novels but that it was poetry and worth waiting for. I agreed even before I finished the novel. I still do.  I remember feeling that Sylvie, Ruth's aunt is beautiful in spirit. I remember thinking I would not mind to have her courage. Housekeeping made me feel alright about doing the crazy thing of switching majors from something I was told to be practical, to doing something that seemed silly but filled me with enthusiasm and joy. When I met Sylvie, she was the sign I did not know I was looking for. I realize now that I was looking for something to help me feel that it was OK to do exactly what I really wanted to do. I did not have to sacrifice myself. Hence, it is not farfetched to say Housekeeping changed my life. And it remains to this day one of the most beautiful books I have read.

I decided a few weeks ago to read mostly from my own shelves, I will go back to the library when I am done or bored. When I saw Robinson's Housekeeping, it felt like the right time for a re-read. The first sentence of a novel often says a lot about the book. Housekeeping opens with:

"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. Sylvia Fisher."

Perhaps because I have become very fascinated with words, I marvel at how impersonal these two beginning sentences seem. Having been absent from her life and almost absent from the novel, Ruth's father's name does not accompany hers. It is made the more obvious because the names that follow hers in the second sentence end either in a husband's or a father's name. In few words, Ruth has said a lot.  This is what makes Robinson a magician. The minimalist treatment of words are chock-full of excellent selections. For instance, the use of the word "care" to describe Ruth and Lucille's time with their grandmother is a good pun for caretaker. Which is exactly what Mrs. Foster was. A true housekeeper. In saying "Misses Lily and Nona Foster" rather than Lily and Nona, the sisters relationship is put perfectly; they are in a sense married to each other and in many ways live for each other.  The use of the word "fled" to describe how they left Ruth and her sister is perfectly dramatic and it is exactly what they did. But the second sentence ends in what I find to be equally delightful and witty: Mrs. Sylvia Fisher. If you read Mrs. Sylvia Foster too quickly, you do a double take, to make sure that you are not wrong, that there are indeed two Sylvias and the last names are not the same. Foster and Fisher is in many ways the foreshadow and summary of the novel. Now I am sure you know the meaning of these two words and they suit the characters very well. Although "I will make you the fisher of men" is what Ruth attaches to her aunt Molly, whose photo she finds with those biblical words. I believe these words apply to Sylvie, too. In an abstract sense.

Ruth goes on to say; "Through all these generations of elders we lived in one house, my grandmother's house, built for her by her husband, Edmund Foster, an employee of the railroad, who escaped this world years before I entered it." This third sentence is a foreshadow on the "fostering" nature of the older Sylvia. The word "escaped" used in describing the death of her grandfather says more about Ruth than it does about Edmund. And so does the word "enter," which suggests an entrance and, therefore, alludes to an exit.  Without saying much about herself, we are given something better, the way Ruth thinks, especially on the matter of death.  Therefore, later in the novel when she speaks of her mother's suicide as "her flight into the lake," we are by then familiar with Ruth's way with death. The question here is why is it that her grandmother dies whereas her grandfather escapes. And perhaps the answer is in the nature of their lives rather than their dying. Ruth, though respectful of her grandmother's life does not appear to admire it. But the way she is living as she recounts her story suggests that she finds her grandfather's life admirable.

The lake is inescapable in Fingerbone, the town into which Ruth and Lucille are dumped by their mother, before she energetically drove herself into that same lake. Rumor has it she did not succeed the first time, but she did not give up, she tried again. It is the same lake that Ruth's grandfather escaped into, albeit in a train. About the lake Ruth says:

"It is true that one is always aware of the lake in Fingerbone, or the deeps of the lake, the lightless, airless waters below. When the ground is plowed in the spring, cut and laid open, what exhales from the furrows but that same, sharp, watery smell. The wind is watery, and all the pumps and creeks and ditches smell of water unalloyed by any other element."

As overwhelming as its presence is, her description of the lake seems an understatement knowing that both her mother and grandfather's lives have been claimed by that same lake. The former freely, the latter accidentally. Even if the lake's presence was not everywhere, it would still be prominent in her mind, if not the back of it. Though she talks only of spring here, the lake is ever present throughout the year, even in the winter when it is frozen. There is something about the nature of the lake that is both threatening and enviable. It is wild and free, a giver and taker, full of life and death. The lake seems its own master and somehow the master of the town, after all, It is the people of Fingerbone who arrange their lives around it and not the other way around.

But oh the people are described so beautifully! Never have I read a representation of a people so brilliantly and accurately fitting my idea of society. But I have not read much, and it is likely that Housekeeping shaped my thinking of society which is, therefore, my reason for feeling as I do. In this instance society is something like a mob or even a dictator or more accurately a jailor. It is a people who have decided on a way of living and this way of life is deemed the norm. To not conform to the norm is to be abnormal. In which case the society thinks it its responsibility to help the unfortunate soul find its way to normalcy. Oftentimes society does not have to intervene because the system is so effective that one often grows into thinking it is the only way; like Lucille, who would rather believe that their mother "was orderly, vigorous, and sensible, a widow...who was killed in an accident." But Ruth remembered the same mother as a woman who "presided over a life so strictly simple and circumscribed that it could not have made any significant demand on her attention...she was the abandoner, not the abandoned."  It is not a surprise, therefore, when Lucille started feeling that they ought to "improve" themselves, then moving out when she saw that her sister, Ruth, was more like their strange and embarrassing aunt Sylvie, than she and her imagined mother. But who can blame Lucille? Why would not one want something that almost everyone swears to be the way, especially when you are coming from something so different and unstable? Why would not we want to believe that life can be stable as long as one goes with the norm? Why would not we want to take comfort in that? It is easy, after all, or seemingly so. It was not Ruth's way, like her aunt who thought "the deteriorations of things were always a fresh surprise, a disappointment not to be dwelt on," but who also believed that families ought to be together, though she had left her own husband for the life of a transient. Ruth was sensing things in a way Lucile could not. On a little out of door adventure which went on too long and they were, therefore, forced to sleep in the open, Ruth writes:

"I simply let the darkness in the sky become coextensive with the darkness in my skull and bowels and bones everything that falls upon the eye is apparition, a sheet dropped over the world's true workings. The nerves and the brain are tricked, and one is left with dreams that these specters loose their hands from ours and walk away, the curve of the back and the wing of the coat so familiar as to imply that they should be permanent fixtures of the world when in fact nothing is more perishable."

And that:

"Darkness is the only solvent. While it was dark, despite Lucilles's pacing and whistling, and despite what must have been seemed to me that there need not be relic, remnant, margin, residue, memento, bequest, memory, thought, track, or trace, if only the darkness could be perfect and permanent."

I am tempted to leave it at the quote above. It is so beautiful I do not know what I could say about it that will bring more meaning to it. All I can say is this shows how different Ruth's mind was compared to her sister's. It is what made it possible for her to leave behind the precious house that meant so much to her grandmother, burning, and flee with her aunt into a dark night and life of little housekeeping, where home was not a place she went but a place she carried within.


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