Housekeeping is one of those island books..."if you can take five books to an island..." I first read this book nearly 15 years ago in grad school, and it has never been far away since. My copy is so old I cannot even find an image of the cover! But the cover to the left is good since the railroad bridge plays a central role in the novel.
Robinson's book fits in with the long tradition of great American novels, but I will not pursue that thought here. Instead, as I consider using this novel for a college-level English writing course (in which we also read!) I want to explore the idea of approaching life. This short book is loaded with themes (memory, water, transience, death, existence, family, role of women, and the list goes on) that I could write a series of entries on this book alone.
The plot is deceptively simple. Ruth and Lucille are two young girls dropped off on the porch of their grandmother (whom they have never met) while their mother goes to drive a car off a cliff and into a lake. This same lake took the life of their grandfather when the train he worked on went off the bridge "like a weasel sliding off a rock." They are raised by their grandmother until she dies, and two spinster great aunts jump in but eventually recruit the girl's Aunt Sylvie to handle raising them. Sylvie is "a drifter" who is fond of riding in boxcars, only laughs when asked about her husband, and seems in no particular interest to move forward. Lucille eventually leaves the two to live with a teacher so she can be like other girls, but Ruth decides to stay with Sylvie.
Sylvie's approach to life, that of a transient, is reflective of how life truly is. It sounds cliche, but we are just passing through. Sylvie's life is one of working with that direction instead of fighting against it. "Housekeeping" is the attempt to bring order against this transience, but Sylvie shows no desire to fight against nature. In fact, nature itself begins to take over their house, which Sylvie accepts (but does not necessarily welcome or discourage). Her whole life revolves around her ability to move along with where life leads her. Perhaps because her father (Ruth's grandfather) dies when she is young, she understands the transient life. And she does not fear the end of that existence. At one point Sylvie and Ruth spend the night in a rowboat on this lake which has claimed their family and below the bridge which offers escape, yet also death (and the two are often intermingled). As Ruth dips her hand in the water and thinks about how easily they could capsize, Sylvie tells her "There is nothing to be afraid of...Nothing to be worried about. Nothing at all."
Of course, Sylvie draws the attention of the well-meaning townsfolk who do not follow nor understand this transient approach to life. They want her to conform to society, if not for her sake than at least for Ruth's, and for a short time Sylvie tries this approach. But it is not in her, and Ruth sees no reason for the struggle either. Lucille also does not understand their approach and thus goes into traditional society. One way in which this book rises above others is Robinson does not set up flat characters which make it easy for Sylvie to rail against society. Instead, both Ruth and Sylvie seemed awed by the way others can master the rules of society and live in an orderly way. We also see how Sylvie must look to others, with 14 cats living in the parlor with half eaten birds, cans piled to the ceiling, and window panes missing. At times Sylvie seems to wake up and see herself, but her attempts at fitting in are short lived and bound to fail.
So how should we approach life? Of course, Robinson does honestly think we should jump in boxcars and eschew our home and communities. But should we fight the transient nature of our existence? Is there a way to balance this awareness of our mortality with "housekeeping?" The answer may lie in community and relationships, which are also central to the novel. Sylvie may be a transient, but there is a whole community of transients who depend on one another. Ruth and Lucille are torn between two communities, but each makes a conscious choice on how to live. What binds them are those current relationships and the memory (another major theme) of old relationships.
This could go on for a while, so I'll stop. To put it simply -- read this book. Not only is the plot incredible for many reasons, Robinson's prose is, well, poetic. In fact, I remember being told she published parts as poetry before publishing the novel, but that may be grad school enthusiasm. However, the book received an endless amount of praise when it came out and showed up on more than one 100 best books of the century lists in 2000. It was almost 25 years before Robinson's next novel came out a few years ago and won the Pulitzer (and I have a signed copy from when I met her on campus for a reading!). She is a remarkably brilliant yet humble person who spent much of her "time off" educating herself, although she managed to publish two non-fiction works in between the novels. Anything she has written is worth reading, and as you may have figured out, she has not written all that much. But with any luck, she'll continue at a faster rate.
Well, Houskeeping was not supposed to be the book of the week so I'm hesitant to venture what is next. I survived a very busy week while reading this (took just three leisurely nights) and next week is not much better. So you'll have to just handle the tension and wait to be surprised.