Marilynne Robinson Biography
Nationality: American. Born: Sandpoint, Idaho, in 1943. Education: Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, B.A. in American literature; University of Washington, Seattle, M.A. and Ph.D. in English. Awards: American Academy Rosenthal Foundation award, 1982; Hemingway Foundation award, 1982; PEN Essay Prize, 1999.
Housekeeping. New York, Farrar Straus, 1980; London, Faber, 1981.
Uncollected Short Stories
"Orphans," in Harper's (New York), February 1981.
"Connie Bronson," in Paris Review, Summer-Fall 1986.
Mother Country: Britain, The Nuclear State, and Nuclear Pollution. New York, Farrar Straus, and London, Faber, 1989.
The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought. Boston, HoughtonMifflin, 1998.
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Housekeeping is, for most people, a basic requirement, if only on the simplest level of maintaining shelter. Little chores become so routine that they are done without thinking: washing the dishes or clothes, sweeping, dusting, all take up time and energy that we disregard, write off. Not many of us can or would bother to total the hours spent in such minor labors, any more than we could tally up the hours spent in the bath; they are just necessary losses. Those hours are acceptably, if boringly, spent in the small acts that give our lives some structure, some normality. Changing the linens on Mondays, shopping on Thursdays, church on Sundays, accumulate to keep our lives from flapping loose out into the chaos, like a dress blown off the laundry line and clean away.
Marilynne Robinson's novel Housekeeping is about the collapse and abandonment of housekeeping and of the frail structure it provides. For Ruth, who tells the story, housekeeping is a phase of the past, disintegrated in a childhood of isolated women and the constant presence of a lake. Ruth and Lucille were little girls when their mother drove them to her home town on a mountain lake in Idaho. The town, with the macabre and ludicrous name of Fingerbone, is small, completely surrounded, with the lake on one side, and the mountains and forest on the others. As in all remote towns, the people know one another too well, and the closeness is oppressive: "The people of Fingerbone and its environs were very much given to murder. And it seemed that for every pitiable crime there was an appalling accident. What with the lake and the railroads, and what with blizzards and floods and barn fires and forest fires and the general availability of shotguns and bear traps and homemade liquor and dynamite, what with the prevalence of loneliness and religion and the rages and ecstasies they induce, and the closeness of families, violence was inevitable." With long, slow sentences, Ruth tells how the mountains shut out light and the rest of the world, the forest holds darkness and danger, and the lake is a bowl of death. Never once is there any mention of "natural beauty."
The lake, the reason for the town's location, sits by, always in one's awareness, passive, a relentless presence. Ruth's first experience of the lake comes when, after dropping the girls off at the house of a grandmother they had never met, her mother drives her car off the cliffs and into the lake, drowning herself. Years earlier, a train had derailed and, plunging into the lake, drowned all aboard, including Ruth's grandfather. All of the dead remain in their underwater capsules. When the lake freezes, people go ice-skating. During the summer, Ruth and her sister play by it, fish in it. Slowly and undramatically, its importance grows. One winter, the snows melt but the lake does not, leaving the water to back up and flood the town. In Ruth's house, they move upstairs, letting the water take the downstairs, soaking furniture and curtains and sloshing against the walls. The whole town sits and waits, sodden, for the ice on the lake to melt so the water can flow home. "The clashes and groans from the lake continued unabated, dreadful at night, and the sound of the night wind in the mountains was like one long indrawn breath. Downstairs the flood bumped and fumbled like a blind man in a strange house, but outside it hissed and trickled, like the pressure of water against your eardrums, and like the sounds you hear in the moment before you faint."
There are no men in this story, no sweet romance, no subtle sexuality, and the women are quiet, solitary, odd. Ruth's mother rarely spoke to her children. After her suicide, the girls are cared for by a very old grandmother living in her memories. When the girls find her dead, two elderly aunts are summoned from Spokane, but they then track down another aunt, Sylvie, to take over. Desertions and deaths are recounted in Ruth's helpless, rarely angry tone of acceptance in the same way that she tells of a fishing trip with Lucille, or of Sylvie's strange, transient ways. Sylvie rummages in rubbish bins, eats only in the dark, saves all tins, never cleans anything, plays crazy eights during the flood. She does her best to care for the girls, but housekeeping and structure left her life long ago.
As they reach adolescence, Ruth begins to acquiesce to her fate, while Lucille begins to fight it. Lucille wants to dress cleanly, to have friends, be normal, learn housekeeping. In a final desertion, she moves in with her Home Economics teacher. Ruth is left to drift, having decided "it is better to have nothing."
Robinson's style itself is evocative of drifting and drifters' tales, with long, often poetic descriptions that suddenly snap back to the original point or deflect to a new, unrelated one. At times, Ruth's anger appears in harsher narrative: a cold realization about Lucille, snide comments about Fingerbone's church ladies, or one long tirade about Cain's betrayal of Abel, which seems slightly inappropriate in a book without men: betrayal exists among sisters as well. At times, too, the sneering is so rough as to seem more than could be felt by this bland girl who cannot tell the difference between what she has dreamed and what she has imagined. These are small flaws in a book that is so rich with thought and feeling that it compels the reader to slow down and truly read.