In praise of older books: Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (1980)

Loss of a father by drowning is the subject of this novel. Julie Parsons can closely relate

Marilynne Robinson. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

Marilynne Robinson. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

 

Loss: the subject of Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson’s story of the Foster sisters of Fingerbone, Idaho.

I know about loss, about a father who disappears into water. In my case it was the South Pacific; for the Fosters, it was a lake. My father was on a boat; the Fosters’ father was on a train, which derailed “like a weasel sliding off a rock” from the bridge crossing the lake. In my case the boat survived, but the 25 passengers disappeared, including my father. A suitcase, a seat cushion and a lettuce was all that was retrieved from the lake in Fingerbone.

Loss drove the Foster sisters away. Molly went to China to become a missionary; Helen, married to a “certain Reginald Stone ... set up housekeeping in Seattle”. Sylvie just left. Their mother, on her own, lamented: “She had never taught them to be kind to her.”

Helen came home with her daughters, Lucille and Ruth. She left them on their grandmother’s porch “with a box of graham crackers to prevent conflict and restlessness.” She drove to the cliff edge. Then she, too, went into the lake. It claimed her, as it had claimed her father.

Madness masquerading as eccentricity was the fate of the family. When Grandmother died, Sylvie returned. The house filled up with newspapers, tin cans, piles of wood, mice, spiders and the remains of swallows brought in by the cat. Lucille abandoned her sister and aunt and went to live with her home economics teacher. Respectability claimed her.

“When did I become so unlike other people?” wonders Ruth. Was it when her mother “left us and broke the family and the sorrow was released and we saw its wings and saw it fly a thousand ways into the hills”?

Sylvie’s world, the world of the “transient” – the railways, the woods, the mountains – beckoned. Fingerbone became just a station she and Ruth passed through on their way to somewhere else.

The lost: may they rest in peace wherever they are.

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