Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson


This is Marilynne Robinson’s first novel; here’s what I wrote about two of her others:  Gilead and Lila. She certainly gives me much to think about and I find that I see things in a different light from one moment to the next (or one decade to the next).

It begins this way:  “My name is Ruth. I grew up with my younger sister, Lucille, under the care of my grandmother, Mrs. Sylvia Foster, and when she died, of her sisters-in-law, Misses Lily and Nona Foster, and when they fled, of her daughter, Mrs. Sylvia Fisher.” Ruth, writing as an adult recounts the tragedies that took the lives of Ruth’s grandfather and her mother and they involved the lake that threatens the town in various ways.

As it develops Sylvia, the aunt of two girls, is not one for housekeeping. They feared that she would hop a freight train at any moment and leave them and she always seemed to be hearing something off in the distance. On her housekeeping approach, Ruth says

Thus finely did our house become attuned to the orchard and to the particularities of weather, even in the first days of Sylvie’s housekeeping. Thus did she begin by littles and perhaps unawares to ready it for wasps and bats and barn swallows….It was for the sake of air that she opened doors and windows, though it was probably through forgetfulness that she left them open. It was for the sake of air that on one early splendid day she wrestled my grandmother’s plum-colored davenport into the front yard, where it remained until it weathered pink.

Within a year or two Lucille took charge for herself:  she pulled all the sequins off the toes of the blue velveteen ballet slippers Sylvie brought for school shoes used to walk on the muddy roads. It was a concern to Lucille that Sylvie lived in their grandmother’s room as a transient (clothes and toiletries in a box under the bed, shoes under the pillow). Eventually Lucille sought refuge with a teacher at her high school.

Shortly after Lucille left, Sylvie introduces Ruth to her world and they cross the lake in a “borrowed” boat to explore an old house, spend the night lost, and come back by freight train. The town threatens to intervene and Sylvie does some housekeeping (removes the tin cans stacked to the ceiling from the parlor), but sees the futility of this effort and convinces Ruth to escape with her by crossing the railroad bridge at night where the grandfather’s train plunged into the lake. They live the life of transients which seems to suit them both.

Though Ruth lovingly tells the story of her aunt and companion in a positive light, as a “housekeeper” myself, it’s hard for me to see the story beyond Lucille’s take. I think of other transients seen in a positive light, for example, the nomadic sheep shearer who travels with his 4-year-old daughter Buster in the beloved Australian classic The Shiralee. About him it is said, “Some men are like a wheel.  They were made to go around.  They rust if they lie still, and they fall apart.  Some men, they can live in a box, but you’re not one of them.” I wonder what other stories there are of women who are like a wheel.

The book is set in the west, influenced one supposes by Robinson having grown up in Sandpoint, Idaho, at the edge of the huge Lake Pend Oreille (it’s shaped like an ear?). The time isn’t stated specifically, but a book that’s mentioned, Not as a Stranger, read by the teenaged Ruth, was published in 1954 and was made into a movie in 1955.

Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980, 219 pages.



  • Robinson writes so beautifully that there are many quotable moments in HOUSEKEEPING. For example:

    “Every spirit passing through the world fingers the tangible and mars the mutable, and finally has come to look and not to buy. So shoes are worn and hassocks are sat upon and finally everything is left where it was and the spirit passes on, just as the wind in the orchard picks up the leaves from the ground as if there were no other pleasure in the world but brown leaves, as if it would deck, clothe, flesh itself in flourishes of dusty brown apple leaves, and then drops them all in a heap at the side of the house and goes on.”

    High school English teachers would send the second and final sentence back to the writer with many red marks for running on with so many phrases 🙂 HOUSEKEEPING challenges more than our grammar. It challenges time, significance, materialism.

    Robinson questions “… a law of completion – that everything must finally be made comprehensible” and reminds us that none will never live long enough to complete everything.

    • Thanks so much for this impressive quote from the book and your insightful take. It has made me think I should read it again to bring up all the images and trains of thought that are so worthy of remembering.


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