RSS Feed

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

Winner of the Pen/Hemingway Award

A modern classic, Housekeeping is the story of Ruth and her younger sister, Lucille, who grow up haphazardly, first under the care of their competent grandmother, then of two comically bumbling great-aunts, and finally of Sylvie, the eccentric and remote sister of their dead mother. The family house is in the small town of Fingerbone on a glacial lake in the Far West, the same lake where their grandfather died in a spectacular train wreck and their mother drove off a cliff to her death. It is a town “chastened by an outsized landscape and extravagant weather, and chastened again by an awareness that the whole of human history had occurred elsewhere.” Ruth and Lucille’s struggle toward adulthood beautifully illuminates the price of loss and survival, and the dangerous and deep undertow of transcience.


A lake with a tragic past, a melancholy existence of a family a tragic story on loss, identity, sisterhood, growth and realisation.
Narrated though a younger sister of two sisters she is more placid more isolated and marvels and looks at the natural world around her and her aunt who comes to look after her she marvels at her resemblance of her long lost mother. She tries to deal with the facts of her families fate and her being left behind by woman, mothers and grandmothers, and embraces this new figure in her life her aunt. She undertakes a transcending journey out of isolation into realisation and freedom from the shackles and the darkness that surrounds the lake.

Sisters that were quiet and observant, one more reserved than the other and who felt not the need for friends. Their misfortunes brought about attention from some in the community of being misunderstood and did not leave the family to their own devices through their grief over loss and their rebuilding of love and trusts.

Haunting and poetically written wonderful memorable tale.
A story that demands attentive reading, provides food for thought, showcasing the wonders that illuminate the world and the loss that linger in the breasts of those that remain behind. A must-read!

A vast number great excerpts follows.


“Perhaps we all awaited a resurrection. Perhaps we expected a train to leap out of the water, caboose foremost, as if in a movie run backward and then to continue across the bridge. The passengers would arrive sounder than they departed, accustomed to the depth, serene about their restoration to the light, disembarking at the station in Fingerbone with a calm that quieted the astonishment of friends. Say that this resurrection was general enough to include my grandmother and Helen, my mother. Say that Helen lifted our hair from our napes with her cold hands and gave us strawberries from her purse. Say that my grandmother pecked our brows with her whiskery lips and then all of them went down the road to our house, my grandfather, youngish and high-pocketed, just outside their conversation like a difficult memory or a ghost. Then Lucille and I could run off to the woods, leaving them to talk of old times and make sandwiches for lunch and show each other snapshots.”

“”Where’s Lucille?” [says Sylvie to Ruth, having woken up on a bench.] “Home,” [says Ruth.] “Well, that’s fine,” Sylvie said. “I’m glad to have a chance to talk to you. You’re so quiet, it’s hard to know what you think.” Sylvie had stood up, and we began to walk toward home. “I suppose I don’t know what I think.” This confession embarrassed me. It was a source of both terror and comfort to me then that I often seemed invisible–incompletely or minimally existent, in fact. It seemed to me that I made no impact on the world, and that in exchange I was privileged to watch it unawares. But my allusion to this feeling of ghostliness sounded peculiar, and sweat started all over my body, convicting me on the spot of gross corporeality. “Well, maybe that will change,” Sylvie said. We walked a while without speaking. “Maybe it won’t.” I dropped a step behind and watched her face. She always spoke to me in the voice of an adult dispensing wisdom. I wanted to ask her if she knew what she thought, and if so, what the experience of that sort of knowledge was like, and if not, whether she too felt ghostly as I imagined she must.”

“For a while she [Lucille] sang “Mockingbird Hill,” and then she sat down beside me in our ruined stronghold, never still, never accepting that all our human boundaries were overrun. Lucille would tell this story differently. She would say I fell asleep, but I did not. I simply let the darkness in the sky become coextensive with the darkness in my skull and bowels and bones. Everything that falls upon the eye is apparition, a sheet dropped over the world’s true workings. The nerves and the brain are tricked, and one is left with dreams that these specters loose their hands from ours and walk away, the curve of the back and the swing of the coat so familiar as to imply that they should be permanent fixtures of the world, when in fact nothing is more perishable. Say that my mother was as tall as a man, and that she sometimes set me on her shoulders, so that I could splash my hands in the cold leaves above our heads. Say that my grandmother sang in her throat while she sat on her bed and we laced up her big black shoes. Such details are merely accidental. Who could know but us? And since their thoughts were bent upon other ghosts than ours, other darkness than we had seen, why must we be left, the survivors picking among flotsam, among the small, unnoticed, unvalued clutter that was all that remained when they vanished, that only catastrophe made notable? Darkness is the only solvent. While it was dark, despite Lucille’s pacing and whistling, and despite what must have been dreams (since even Sylvie came to haunt me), it seemed to me that there need not be relic, remnant, margin, residue, memento, bequest, memory, thought, track or trace if only the darkness could be perfect and permanent.”

“I remember Sylvie walking through the house with a scarf tied around her hair, carrying a broom. Yet this was the time that leaves began to gather in the corners. There were leaves that had been through the winter, some of them worn to a net of veins. There were scraps of paper among them, crisp and strained from their mingling in the cold brown liquors of decay and regeneration, and on these scraps there were sometimes words. One read Powers Meet, and another, which had been the flap of an envelope, had a penciled message in an anonymous hand: I think of you. Perhaps Sylvie when she swept took care not to molest them. Perhaps she sensed a Delphic niceness in the scattering of these leaves and paper, here and not elsewhere, thus and not otherwise.”

“Her hair, which was as black as the sky, and so long that it swept after her, a wind in the grass, her fingers, which were sky black and so fine and slender that they were only cold touch like drops of rain, her step, which was so silent that people were surprised when they even thought they heard it, she would be transformed by the growth of light into a mortal child. And, when she stood at the bright window, she would find that the world was gone, the orchard was gone, her mother and grandmother and aunts were gone. Like Noah’s wife on the tenth or fifteenth night of rain, she would stand in the window and realize that the world was really lost. And those outside would scarcely know her, so sadly was she changed. Before she had been fleshed in air, and clothed in nakedness, and mantled in cold, and her very bones were only slender things like shards of ice. She had haunted the orchard out of preference, but she could walk into the lake without ripple or displacement, and sail up the air invisibly as heat. And now, lost to her kind, she would almost forget them, and she would feed coarse food to her coarse flesh and be almost satisfied.
If I had stayed there, I might have discovered other things. For example, I was hungry enough to begin to learn that hunger has its pleasures, and I was happily at ease in the dark. And, in general, I could feel that I was breaking the tethers of need, one by one.”

“It is true that one is always aware of the lake in Fingerbone, or the deeps of the lake, the lightless, airless waters below. When the ground is plowed in the spring, cut and laid open, what exhales from the furrows but the same, sharp, watery smell. The wind is watery, and all the pumps and creeks and ditches smell of water unalloyed by any other element. At the foundation is the old lake, which is smothered and nameless and altogether black. Then there is Fingerbone, the lake of charts and photographs, which is permeated by sunlight and sustains green life and innumerable fish, and in which one can look down in the shadow of a dock and see stony, earthy bottom, more or less as one sees dry ground. And above that, the lake that rises in the spring and turns the grass dark and coarse as reeds. And above that the water suspended in sunlight, sharp as the breath of an animal, which brims inside the circle of mountains.”

“This perfect quiet had settled into their house after the death of their father. That event had troubled the very medium of their lives. Time and air and sunlight bore wave and wave of shock, until all the shock was spent, and time and space and light grew still again and nothing seemed to tremble, and nothing seemed to lean. The disaster had fallen out of sight, like the train itself, and if the calm that followed it was not greater than the calm that came before it, it had seemed so. And the dear ordinary had healed as seamlessly as an image on water. “

“She was then a magisterial woman, not only because of her height and her large, sharp face, not only because of her upbringing, but also because it suited her purpose, to be what she seemed to be so that her children would never be startled or surprised, and to take on all the postures and vestments of matron, to differentiate her life from theirs, so that her children would never feel intruded upon. Her love for them was utter and equal, her government of them generous and absolute. She was constant as daylight, and she would be unremarked as daylight, just to watch the calm inwardness of their faces. what was it like. One evening one summer she went out to the garden. The earth in the rows was light and soft as cinders, pale clay yellow, and the trees and plants were ripe, ordinary green and full of comfortable rustlings. And above the pale earth and bright trees the sky was the dark blue of ashes. As she knelt in the rows she heard the hollyhocks thump against the shed wall. She felt the hair lifted from her neck by a swift, watery wind, and she saw the trees fill with wind and heard their trunks creak like masts. She burrowed her hand under a potato plant and felt gingerly for the new potatoes in their dry net of roots, smooth as eggs. She put them in her apron and walked back to the house thinking, what have I seen, what have I seen. The earth and the sky and the garden, not as they always are. And she saw her daughters faces not as they always were, or as other people’s were, and she was quiet and aloof and watchful, not to startle the strangeness away.
She had never taught them to be kind to her.”

“We had been assured by our elders that intelligence was a family trait. All my kin and fore bears were people of substance or remarkable intellect, though somehow none of them had prospered in the world. Too bookish, my grandmother said with tart pride, and Lucille and I read constantly to forestall criticism, anticipating failure. If my family were not as intelligent as we were pleased to pretend, this was an innocent deception, for it was a matter of indifference to everybody whether we were intelligent or not. People always interpreted our slightly formal manner and our quiet tastes as a sign that we wished to stay a little apart. This was a matter of indifference, also, and we had out wish.”

“She would have considered already the fact that I had never made a friend in my life. Until recently, neither had she. We had really never had any use for friends or conventional amusements. We had spent our lives watching and listening with the constant sharp attention of children lost in the dark. It seemed that we were bewildering lost in a landscape that, with any light at all, would be wholly familiar. What to make of sounds and shapes, and where to put our feet. So little fell upon our senses, and all of that was suspect.”

“Abandoned homesteads like this one were rare, however, so perhaps all the tales of perished settlers were at root one tale, carried off one every direction the way one cry of alarm is carried among birds through the whole of the woods and even the sky. It might have been this house that peopled all these mountains. When it broke it might have cast them invisibly into the wind, like spores, thousands from one drab husk, or millions, for there was no reason to believe that anyone ever had heard all the tales of unsheltered folk that were in these mountains, or that anyone ever would.”

“Because, once alone, it is impossible to believe that one could ever have been otherwise. Loneliness is an absolute discovery. When one looks from inside at a lighted window, or looks from above at the lake, one sees the image of oneself in a lighted room, the image of oneself among trees and sky-the deception is obvious, but flattering all the same. When one looks from the darkness into the light, however, one sees all the difference between here and there, this and that.”

“What is thought, after all, what is dreaming, but swim and flow, and the images they seem to animate? The images are the worst of it. It would be terrible to stand outside in the dark and watch a woman in a lighted room studying her face in a window, and to throw a stone at her, shattering the glass, and then to watch the window knit itself up again and the bright bits of lip and throat and hair piece themselves seamlessly again into that unknown, indifferent woman. It would be terrible to see a shattered mirror heal to show a dreaming woman tucking up her hair. And here we find our great affinity with water, for like reflections on water our thoughts will suffer no changing shock, no permanent displacement. They mock us with their seeming slightness. If they were more substantial-if they had weight and took up space-they would sink or be carrier away in the general flux. But they persist, outside the brisk and ruinous energies of the world. I think it must have been my mothers plan to rupture this bright surface, to sail beneath into very blackness, but here she was, wherever my eyes fell, and behind my eyes, whole and in fragments, a thousand images of one gesture, never dispelled but rising always, inevitably, like a drowned woman.”

“I cannot taste a cup of water but recall that the eye of the lake is my grandfather’s, and that the lake’s heavy, blind, encumbering waters composed my mother’s limbs and weighed her garments and stopped her breath and stopped her sight. There is remembrance, and communion, altogether human and unhallowed. For families will not be broken. Curse and expel them, send their children wandering, drown them in floods and fires, and old women will make songs out of all these sorrows and sit in the porches and sing them on mild evenings. Every sorrow suggests a thousand songs, and every song recalls a thousand sorrows, and so they are infinite in number, and all the same.”