Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

“To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing — the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again.”

~Marilynne Robinson, from Housekeeping

Yesterday I was making my way home from another long business trip when God snuck up on me again in His often absurd and existential way. Sitting half asleep in an empty train car, my rest was interrupted by an elderly couple from a foreign country who boarded at a random stop. Both were rather poor in appearance and spoke a language I could not have recognized even if they weren’t shouting. The old gentleman must have been nearly deaf.

The lady was doing her best to get a point across and said a word that sounded like “bleakestra”.

“Eh?” the old man would say, and then

I could stand it no longer.

“BLEAKESTRA!” I shouted.

The old man turned to me, and with all 5 of his teeth, beamed his warmest smile. Here, against all probability, in a land so far from his own, he had stumbled upon a fellow countryman!

We were, in an instant – family.

He walked over to me and put both hands on my shoulders and said

“Ah! Berkhcberkchbefkhcbekfhcbedkhbc!!!”

Fortunately, the train stopped at my station at this exact moment and I was able to exit before I had to break his heart. Before I stepped out I gave him a warm embrace and he hugged me back for almost too long before I hurried across the closing doors.

I’ll never see him again, but today we occupy a place in each other’s heart.

We all think we understand the world, but truthfully we really only understand it with the handful of building blocks we’ve collected along the way. We interpret and assume and fill in the blanks with faith and fear, colliding with others who are doing the same.

Marilynne Robinson said

In a way Housekeeping is meant as a sort of demonstration of the intellectual culture of my childhood. It was my intention to make only those allusions that would have been available to my narrator, Ruth, if she were me at her age, more or less. The classical allusions, Carthage sown with salt and the sowing of dragon’s teeth which sprouted into armed men, stories that Ruthie combines, were both in the Latin textbook we used at Coeur d’Alene High School. My brother David brought home the fact that God is a sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. I never thought to ask him where he found it. Emily Dickinson and the Bible were blessedly unavoidable.

There are not many references in Housekeeping to sources other than these few, though it is a very allusive book, because the narrator deploys every resource she has to try to make the world comprehensible. What she knows, she uses, as she does her eyes and her hands.

Yes, that’s it.

Making the world comprehensible.

As Newton said, “A man may imagine things that are false, but he can only understand things that are true”.

Housekeeping is the brilliant tale of a girl’s journey to understanding. Like Harper Lee and Maya Angelou, Robinson employs the adult narration of a woman’s childhood remembrances. In Ruth, we follow a child untethered, drifting with happenstance without guile or defense. She cannot influence her circumstances, so stoically she flows.

Ruthie’s Aunt Sylvie (her custodian) like Camus’ Stranger is a compelling antihero. Robinson wrote

and while Sylvie obviously has her own history, to the degree that she has not taken the impress of society she expresses the fact that human nature is replete with nameless possibilities and, by implication, that the world is accessible to new ways of understanding.

In Housekeeping, the townsfolk of Fingerbone live a threadbare, insular existence held together only by the traditions and mores of their society. Though Ruthie and Sylvie live peacefully in their own home, the people are threatened by their transient-like ways which profoundly threaten their collective sense of normalcy. When they try to intervene, the women abandon the town to preserve their unity.

Society drives conformity, but families are more than society.

Commenting on his book Albert Camus said

I summarized The Stranger a long time ago, with a remark I admit was highly paradoxical: ‘In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death.’ I only meant that the hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game.

Near the end of the book, Ruthie says

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 of all these sorrows and sit on the porch and sing them on mild evenings.

Yes, housekeeping is more than a house, or a neighborhood, or a town.  It is the construct of families architected by people bound to each other by their own definitions, struggling for understanding.