Monday, December 28, 2009
Marilynne Robinson’s “Housekeeping”
Some years back (pre-Netflix so it must have been Blockbuster, most likely about 1995 or so), we rented a movie called “Housekeeping.” It had been originally released in 1987, but we didn’t see it at the time, most likely because the release was limited. It’s an odd, quirky kind of movie; I liked it when we watched it but I have a tendency to like odd, quirky kind of movies. It starred Christine Lahti in the lead role, and she’s an actress and director known for independent films. She also played Dr. Kathryn Austin in the TV series Chicago Hope from 1994 to 1995, and she won an Academy Award for the short film she directed, Lieberman in Love (1995).
So I watched it, liked it, and forgot about it, except for one scene in the movie – a train crossing a lake on a bridge, and the train goes off the tracks. For whatever reason, that scene stuck in my head, and would arise occasionally, especially when I’d read in the newspaper about train wrecks.
Fast forward to 2009.
I read an interview with Marilynne Robinson about her new novel, Home (2008), and I’m intrigued enough to order it. But before I do, I decide I want to read her two earlier novels first – Housekeeping (1980), which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and Gilead (2004), which won the Pulitzer Prize. So I start with Housekeeping. I don’t make the connection with the movie; there’s nothing on the paperback cover to even suggest it had been made a movie (you know, the old “Now a major motion picture” or some variation on that theme, as if Hollywood made anything else other than “major” motion pictures).
Ten pages into the novel, I discover my train wreck scene from the movie. And I realize I’m reading the work on which the movie was based. I remember enough of the movie to connect it to Christine Lahti and I remember how it ends. But the writing is so good I don’t care that I know what the ending is going to be. In fact, knowing the ending allowed me to enjoy each and every line of the writing, and the writing is extraordinary.
The novel is set in a small town called Fingerbone, Idaho (Robinson was born and raised in a small town in Idaho). A woman raises three daughters alone after her husband dies in a train wreck (yes, the train wreck of my memory). One daughter goes off to China to be a missionary and is never heard from again; a second marries and moves to Seattle but doesn’t stay in touch with the family; and the third drifts away, becoming something of a hobo. Life goes on until the second daughter, abandoned by her husband, returns to Fingerbone, sits her two little girls on her mother’s front porch, and drives her car over a cliff.
The story centers on the two little girls, Ruthie and Lucille, and is in fact narrated by Ruthie. They’re raised for a few years by their grandmother, than two elderly aunt-in-laws, and finally Sylvie, their youngest aunt and the one who returns from a life on the rails to take care of the girls. Sylvie is all things odd. She serves dinner in the dark; she wanders a lot; she walks out on to the train bridge over the lake; she comes home from her walks with fish in her pockets.
This is a story about many things – family, small towns – but it is also about the impermanence of life: the death of the girls’ grandfather in the train wreck; the disappearance of aunts; the abandonment of a father and the suicide of a mother; the periodic flooding of the town; and Sylvie herself, the quintessential model of impermanence. The two girls, drawn closely together by their circumstances, eventually take what seems to be two very different paths in reaction to that impermanence. One will reject it and one will embrace it but both are shaped and defined by it.
Robinson is a member of the permanent faculty of the Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. She’s also a Christian. That is another way to read this novel, which has no direct references to church, religion or God anywhere in it, but seems suffused by the gospel message.