Aside from the fact that I didn’t agree with the “finalists,” I noticed that a surprising number of critics mentioned the same “runner-up.” Housekeeping, a novel written by Marilynne Robinson in 1981, was frequently mentioned as one of the best American novels. One critic, Meghan O’Rourke of Slate magazine, wrote such an eloquent appraisal of Housekeeping, I decided to track it down. (I had never heard of it.) I’m glad I did.
Marilynne Robinson has a profound understanding of what it means to discover that you are “outside the boundary” in terms of social norms. Indeed, Ruth, the protagonist (and narrator) of Housekeeping, gradually comes to embrace her status as a rootless misfit – a creature who is destined to pass through life without a home, children or friends. Near the end of this novel, when Ruth hears a minister at the burial of a tramp describe the deceased as “unfortunate,” she wonders if the graves of wealthy and honored citizens are in some sense “fortunate,” or superior to those of the nameless. Are the graves perhaps dug deeper? Since dissolution and decay is the inevitable fate of all humanity, does it finally make any difference how the deceased lived his life? (Heavy thoughts for a timid adolescent!)
When Housekeeping begins, Ruth is firmly rooted in a conventional family. However, instability and the gradual falling away of the family’s underpinning have already begun, even before Ruth’s birth. Ruth’s grandfather died in a bizarre train accident – the train fell from a trestle into a deep lake near the village of Fingerbone and is never recovered. Years later, Ruth’s mother leaves Ruth and her younger sister, Lucille, on the widowed grandmother’s porch – and drives off a cliff into the same dark waters that had claimed the grandfather. After the grandmother dies, the two orphans become the responsibility of two great aunts who readily admit that they are ill equipped to raise two girls. When the dead mother’s sister, Sylvie, arrives for a visit, the aunts cajole her into assuming the responsibility of rearing the girls (in exchange for a permanent home).
At this point, no one realizes that “Aunt Sylvie” has a reputation for being irresponsible. Ruth and Lucille notice that she cooks at odd hours, sleeps outdoors and collects tin cans. She shows no interest in managing a household, and leaves her two charges without supervision. At first, the sisters experience a kind of heady freedom. They eat marshmallows for breakfast, stop attending school, dress as they please and camp out in the woods. However, gradually they become anxious, sensing that they have lost the stability of “home.” As their daily life becomes increasingly bizarre, Lucille reacts with anxiety and then anger. When Sylvie’s behavior begins to attract the attention of neighbors and school officials, Lucille develops a profound sense of shame and begins to talk of finding “another home” where she can have friends, clothes and a social life like other young girls her age.
When the opportunity arrives, she abandons Ruth.
However, Ruth’s response to total freedom takes the form of discovery. She comes to understand that she will always be uncomfortable with other people. She readily admits that she has no desire for a family or children and comes to believe that she is like Sylvie (who has spent years as a tramp) – she intuitively knows that their futures are intertwined. When the people of Fingerbone discover that Ruth and Sylvie have “borrowed” a neighbor’s boat in order to row to an island, they are shocked and decide to take legal action. Then, the rumor spreads that the two women have been seen riding in boxcars. The local sheriff takes matters into his own hands and forces Ruth to make a fateful decision of her own...
Housekeeping deals with the consequences of choosing to live on the margins of society. The bleak little town of Fingerbone serves as a microcosm of the conventional world — a world that punishes those who refuse to shape themselves to fit the norm. In essence, Ruth’s alienation seems preferable since her solitude provides her with a profound insight. Her existence will always be lonely, but it will be filled with a profound awareness of the world’s beauty and wonder.
As captivating as Robinson’s story is, the real appeal of Housekeeping is the beauty of the writing. I frequently read a chapter merely to turn back and read it again and once more experience the pleasure of reading Robinson’s beautifully crafted writing – especially the last 50 pages which pose some provocative questions about conformity and “housekeeping.”