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House Keeping

by Marilynne Robinson

First published in 1980, and later filmed by Bill Forsyth, Housekeeping has become a modern classic. It tells the story of sisters, bereaved, isolated and in the care of a succession of family members. The story charts their struggle to come to terms with loss, conformity and adulthood against the harsh backdrop of the far Northwest of America.

Sisters Ruthie and Lucille find themselves abandoned and alone in the small, nondescript town of Fingerbone, Northwest America. Fingerbone is characterised by being nothing, on the way to nowhere and consisting of only a railroad, bridge and a lake. Their mother Helen, inexplicably - in that all suicides are inexplicable to their family members, drives into the lake and Grandmother is pressed into service caring for the girls. She is loving and dependable, but the reality of her own bereavement is also always present – her husband drowned in the same lake years before. When she dies her ghastly sisters take up charge of the children and theirs is a very different sort of love – fretful, fearful and incompetent. The story is set in the 1950s at a time when family values were strong and there was no adequate provision for uncared-for children. Their future appears to be secure when Aunt Sylvie arrives at their door.

At first Sylvie seems delightfully eccentric and happily unaware of society’s rules and expectations. Sylvie is a transient, a drifter and unable to take root or offer security – whether she is suited to caring for children is an interesting point. With pockets full of crackers for imaginary children and a habit of riding in freight trains, her maverick behaviour is beyond the understanding of the suffocating, small Fingerbone. Her approaches to domestic arrangements and housekeeping are utterly chaotic. Just at the point in their lives when they most need stability and guidance, Sylvie is only able to offer poetic detachment and whimsical distraction.

The book is filled with water; there are many extraordinary descriptions of water throughout with the lake having a foreboding and malicious presence. The characters make symbolic journeys across and through the water in their struggle to come to terms with life. One journey takes Ruthie and Sylvie to an abandoned, haunted farmstead, situated in a frozen valley, farther up the lakeshore. The terrible, destructive nature of the landscape is revealed and the journey becomes a brush with death. The book is also filled with darkness; loss and loneliness, never-ending winter and Sylvie’s refusal to use lights – a poignant reminder that theirs is not an ordinary childhood.

Gradually Sylvie’s eccentricity turns to derangement and the fragile order in the girls’ lives breaks down. Fingerbone shuns the family and Lucille’s bitter decision is to turn away from her sister. Ruthie and Sylvie embark on a final bid for escape, and Housekeeping ends with more questions than it answers.

Marilynne Robinson won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for fiction with her novel, Gilead.

Read our interview with Marilynne Robinson.

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