Keeping House with Robinson

by Rebecca Snow

When I discovered Lighthouse would be featuring Housekeeping for the Big Read, I got a little over-excited. The novel has been my favorite for a very long time. It continues to stir my love for the written word more than any other book. Ruth is a character I just can’t and would never want to forget. And if I had a daughter, I was going to name her after Ruth’s eccentric and lovable aunt, Sylvie.

[caption id="attachment_5683" align="alignright" width="200"]Join Lighthouse in a community-wide exploration of Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, during our Big Read program, January to April 2014. Join Lighthouse in a community-wide exploration of Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, during our Big Read program, January to April 2014.[/caption]

The author, Marilynne Robinson, has a refreshing way with character. I’ve read the novel several times, and while I always love Robinson’s themes of isolation, difference from accepted members of a community, and home, along with her metaphors of water, her play on biblical imagery and her lyrical language, character is the one literary element that impacts me the most. Sometimes I say I care more about style and poetry than story, but I think I am probably lying to myself. All the literary elements overlap, of course—they can’t work alone, and Robinson’s gentle and genius talent uses them all to bring us full and unforgettable characters. For example, one might find it strange that someone likes to eat in the dark, but Robinson knows how to make eccentricity beautiful. On page 100, the narrator Ruth observes her aunt Sylvie:

One evening that summer we came into the kitchen and Sylvie was sitting in the moonlight, waiting for us. The table was already set, and we could smell that bacon had already been fried. Sylvie went to the stove and began cracking eggs on the edge of the frying pan and dropping them shoosh into the fat. I knew what the silence meant, and so did Lucille. It meant that on an evening so calm, so iridescently blue, so full of the chink and chafe of insects and fat old dogs dragging their chains and belling in the neighbors’ dooryards—in such a boundless and luminous evening, we would feel our proximity with our finer senses. As, for example, one of two, lying still in a dark room, knows when the other is awake.

Robinson is a master of appealing to the five senses, and (I’ll avoid any spoilers) she also accomplishes a plot I’ve never seen done better, even with all the tangents—the wonderful section on Cain and Abel, the transcendent digressions into family history, and Ruth’s thoughtful and enduring reflections. The author’s pacing is unhurried and necessarily so. Her words are captivating and move us right into the setting with Ruth. Downstairs the flood bumped and fumbled like a blind man in a strange house (p. 65).

Despite the rather dreary title, Housekeeping is beautiful and haunting, and once we gather the story into our souls, it continues to move and float in our depths. We never see a strange human being the same, home ceases to be a cage, and love resurrects every lost thing in the world.