Many years ago, my beloved grandmother gave me this book - Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson - and said, "this is the best book I've ever read." Ever so special because it was the same copy she had read - she was giving me her copy! The cover of my book is not the same pictured here. I wanted to find that same image for this post, but I couldn't. Makes this even more special to me now, as if I have a rare & fleeting thing.
It has just occurred to me that her hands were the last hands to touch those pages before mine, and this brings tears to my eyes.
My grandmother has been gone for 18 years now, and she gave the book to me a few years prior to her death - oh how I wish I could remember exactly when! The book was originally published in 1980, but my copy is a Bantam trade edition first published in 1989. Through those many years - over 20 - this book has steadfastly followed me thru three homes, and numerous shelves as I've decorated & redecorated, organized and reorganized my bookcases. As those years have passed, I would come upon this copy as I perused my shelves in search of my next reading escape, yet I've passed it over time and time again. After Nanny died, it was a sad reminder that this was something she shared with me but I didn't take the time to read it and share it back with her... and therefore, it took me this long to take that step.
I believe, and often find true, that when it's time, a story finds the reader and so I have decided this was just "our" time, Marilynne Robinson and me, and her Ruthie, Lucille, and Sylvie.
As a reader and would-be writer, I am always in search of the purpose of content and I struggled through this book because I couldn't seem to find it. Yet, I knew it was there and I knew it was important (because my grandmother had told me so!) - you don't win a PEN/Hemingway Award, and are not a Pulitzer Prize Finalist if you don't have something important to share.
And, so I continued on.
This story is one that I did not find the significance of until I finished it. And then, I immediately reopened the front cover to start again. I could appreciate it so much more now that I understood where we were going. And in re-reading it, I recognized so much more that I had simply passed over the first time.
The title itself is an interesting choice: Housekeeping. This book is not about keeping house in the modern traditional sense. It's not about cleaning, laundering, cooking (maybe that is why I took so long to pick it up - who wants to read about doing housework???). Actually, it's far from it. There is a period of time - the majority of the story - where Sylvie keeps no house at all: newspapers, cans, litters of cats, sogged furniture, unhinged doors, burnt curtains... these images plague you thru the story. There is a general unkemptness throughout. So, how does "housekeeping" fit in?
I believe it's in the word itself: house keeping. Keeping a home. A shelter. A sanctuary. The story is of 2 sisters who are abandoned time and again - sometimes intentionally, as with their father and mother, and other times unintentionally, as when their grandmother dies and leaves them in their great aunts' care. Eventually, the great aunts abandon them, too, by calling for their mother's sister, Sylvie, a transient, to return to her homestead and take on the responsibility of raising the girls. Surprisingly, it is Sylvie, the wanderer, who does not abandon them at all. Likewise, the house itself remains a strong, steady rock - a constant in Ruthie's and Lucille's lives that does not abandon them, even through the strife of harsh Idaho winters and a melting so abundant that the lower level was flooded for days, and yet, the home stood. It did not fail them. It protected and provided and kept them safe.
The house was established in the fictitious Fingerbone, Idaho by Edmund & Sylvia Foster, Ruthie and Lucille's grandparents. It's where they raised their three daughters - Molly, Helen & Sylvie. It's where the girl's mother - Helen - returned them when she decided to end her life. It's where the girls lived with their grandmother, then their great aunts and finally, their aunt Sylvie. It is the home they inherited from their grandmother - their safety, security, and shelter. Their grandmother tells them, "Sell the orchards, but keep the house. So long as you look after your health, and own the roof above your head, you're as safe as anyone can be."
The theme of abandonment runs strong through the story, but not in a pitiful or pathetic way. It's subtle, this thread, because it's woven into the fabric of the character's lives, and therefore, rings true of all of us as well. Eventually, everything we own, and those we love and the things we touch are abandoned. They are left behind as we move on. As the saying goes, "you can't take it with you."
For fear of giving too much away, I shall stop here, and this book shall remain on my shelf. I will not abandon it, and I thank it for not abandoning me all these many years it patiently waited for me to discover it. I hope whoever finds if after me appreciates it's message as much as I do.