I’m about 30 years too late to tell you that this is an amazing book. It was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1980. But one of the beauties of truly great literature is that it lends itself to endless thought and discussion. Take the first page of Housekeeping as an example.
In the third sentence, Ruthie, our narrator, tells us that her grandfather had “escaped this world years before I entered it.” The single word, “escaped,” tells you something about how Ruthie feels about this world and about death, since we can only be said to escape from things we are trapped by. To her way of thinking, Ruthie has not survived her grandfather; she has been left behind by him, as she was left behind first by her mother, then by her grandmother, and then by her two great-aunts. These are not the only losses she will experience over the course of the book. Her life is defined by loss, and it is only the beginning for her. She and her younger sister, Lucille, will finally come to be raised by their aunt Sylvie, but always with a fear of losing her, and always looking for the sense of permanence that Ruthie will come to believe does not actually exist. This is the “housekeeping” to which the title refers: the finding and keeping of a sense of something lasting.
There is so much to say about the layers of meaning to be found in nearly every sentence of this book, that I hardly know how to contain myself to something that would still qualify as a review. If you’ve read Moby Dick, perhaps saying that Housekeeping is strongly influenced by Moby Dick will give you some idea of how powerful the book is. But where Moby Dick’s sweep is broad, Housekeeping plumbs the depths of a few meaningful notions. Moby Dick takes place on the open sea; Housekeeping is set on a glacial lake in rural Idaho. Melville wrote, “Yea, foolish mortals, Noah’s flood is not yet subsided; two thirds of the fair world it yet covers.” Robinson’s lake floods Ruthie’s town every spring: “The earth will brim, the soil will become mud and then silty water, and the grass will stand in chill water to its tips.” The town itself used to “belong to the lake,” which by some geological shift or other retreated to one discrete mass, only to reclaim its territory periodically. Ruthie’s grandfather died when his train derailed from the bridge and drove straight in. Years later, Ruthie’s mother will drive her car off a cliff into the lake. For Ruthie, the lake is emblematic of the dissolution of all physical boundaries, including time. So many people have left her that her memories and thoughts of them become the strongest presence there can be, and physical proximity and permanence become hindrances. Home, then, can only be the absence of a home, something Sylvie also understands though Lucille does not. Sylvie is referred to repeatedly as a “drifter,” and it becomes clear that Robinson uses this word because of its relevance to water.
Robinson also deploys light and dark to explore Ruthie’s sense of impermanence. Lucille (whose name means “light”) has blazing red hair and evinces a desire for the concrete nature of a “normal” life. Ruthie, with her dark hair and introverted nature, eschews reality and prefers to live in the presence of perpetual figments that can never threaten to desert her. Near the book’s climax, Ruthie walks through an orchard in the dark:
I learned an important thing in the orchard that night, which was that if you do not resist the cold, but simply relax and accept it, you no longer feel the cold as discomfort. I felt giddily free and eager, as you do in dreams, when you suddenly find that you can fly, very easily, and wonder why you have never tried it before. 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.
Compare this to the following from Moby Dick: “Truly, to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself.”
Considered outside the context of the novel, Ruthie’s struggle to somehow merge life and death would seem objectively sad. Strangely though, there is beauty in her acceptance of the world’s transience. It is made more precious by her knowledge that she has no stake in it.
These are only some of the ways in which Housekeeping is a simply beautiful book. I have compared it to Moby Dick, but I could have written more on that subject, and I could have written equally as much about the clarity of Ruthie’s narrative voice or the metaphorical likeness of the lake to the river Styx. The book is already a classic, so to say my review is superfluous is understatement, but the meaning of this book filled me and flooded out of me in so many thoughts and words that to write nothing would be impossible.
The experience of reading the novel is like a strange meditation. I felt intensely focused on the words in front of me while simultaneously feeling inexorably pulled toward what was to come. And when I finished, I turned back to the first page to reread, trying to understand how quietly, with a hundred near-imperceptible transitions, the book had become what it was in the end. I know I’ve read something great when I feel grateful at the end of the story. This is one of the two best books I’ve read this year, and certainly one of the best ever.