Till it was dawn the divers swung down from the bridge and walked, or were dragged, up again. A suitcase, a seat cushion, and a lettuce were all they retrieved. Some of the divers remembered pushing past debris as they swam down into the water, but the debris must have sunk again, or drifted away in the dark. By the time they stopped hoping to find passengers, there was nothing else to be saved, no relics but three, and one of them perishable.
Thus begins Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, with the specter of a train barreling along through blackest night and plunging from a high bridge into a glacial lake on the outskirts of the desolate Idaho town of Fingerbone. As a result of this catastrophe, the grandmother of Ruth, the novel’s narrator, becomes a widow—one of a succession of female relatives who tend to Ruth and her sister Lucille when the girls are left motherless years later (same lake, different disaster).
Over time, the care and feeding of Ruth and Lucille falls to their aunt Sylvie, one of the most haunting characters I have encountered in more than half a century of reading. The fact that Sylvie’s return to Fingerbone occurs via boxcar reveals much of what you need to know about her. She is by turns whimsical, eccentric, philosophical—and a perpetual flight risk.
As events unfold, the reader experiences a sense of poignant (and growing) dread as one of the girls resolves to disown (if not slay) her familial demons, while the other is irrevocably borne, like a leaf on a stream, toward a transient path.
From stem to stern, Housekeeping is a novel distinguished by staggering, astonishingly beautiful prose. I remember how this passage describing the aftermath of a flood captivated the audience at a reading of Robinson’s I attended in the 1980s:
Fingerbone was never an impressive town. It was chastened by an outsized landscape and extravagant weather, and chastened again by an awareness that the whole of human history had occurred elsewhere…. [The] library was flooded to a depth of three shelves, creating vast gaps in the Dewey decimal system. The losses in hooked and braided rugs and needlepoint footstools will never be reckoned. Fungus and mold crept into wedding dresses and photograph albums, so that the leather crumbled in our hands when we lifted the covers, and the sharp smell that rose when we opened them was as insinuating as the smells one finds under a plank or a rock.
I’ve revisited the book numerous times; it’s a story that enfolds you, grips you, and steals your heart. During my last reading, I was struck by the degree to which Housekeeping is a tale of women, a landscape where men are incidental to the plot and borderline irrelevant. If another novel exists that does a better job of excavating the pain and mystery and unfathomable loss that can fill a woman’s soul to overflowing, I have yet to encounter it.
After the publication of Housekeeping in 1980, decades would elapse before Marilynne Robinson took up novel-writing again; those subsequent efforts led to a Pulitzer Prize and widespread recognition. Yet it is Housekeeping, the novel of her youth (and mine), that continues to hold me—gently and unrelentingly—in its gossamer web.