Ugh! I know this book is highly acclaimed and has won awards. All I can say is that either those people geeked over the loveliness of the prose and ignored that it made no sense, or I’m a lot more stupid than I thought. I don’t claim to be a genius, and I actually don’t mind difficult or thought-provoking books, but I lost track of how many times I was reading a passage, enjoying the beauty and suddenly went, “Wait. What? What does that even mean?!” Or the number of times I then re-read the passage and still couldn’t figure out what the heck Robinson was trying to say.
I am reading my way across the USA–5 or so books from each state with an emphasis on those where the setting becomes another character in the book or where we learn something about the geography, history, and/or people of the state. Right now we are
suffering in Idaho.
Part of my dislike for the book probably has to do with a general dislike of Sylvie, but… well, dislike is kind of a strong word here. None of the characters evoke a great deal of emotion, except for bleakness perhaps. The book is depressing. We’ve seen that before–particularly in Kansas (Becky Mandelbaum’s Bad Kansas) and Nebraska (Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker), but this is on a whole other level.
One cannot cup one’s hand and drink from the rim of any lake without remembering that mothers have drowned in it, lifting their children toward the air, though they must have known as they did that soon enough the deluge would take all the children, too, even if their arms could have held them up. Presumably only incapacity made infants and the very old seem relatively harmless. Well, all that was purged away, and nothing is left of it after so many years but a certain pungency and savor in the water, and in the breath of creeks and lakes, which, however sad and wild, are clearly human. I cannot taste a cup of water but I 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.
Yikes! One cannot drink from a lake without thinking about those who have died in it? It’s beautifully written, but… wow.
We’ve also seen transients before, also in Kansas (Clare Vanderpool’s Moon Over Manifest), and in that one we also saw a former transient who had settled (somewhat) but still was drawn to the people and the trains–but we didn’t see the level of depression and bleakness that we do here (and, granted, Moon Over Manifest is for Young Readers so we wouldn’t expect to, but still…).
And, I don’t know–maybe the depiction is accurate; certainly there’s a lot of depression related to homelessness and transience. It didn’t exactly ring false. In fact, it rang true for the characters in the book. Ruthie’s preoccupation with death presumably stems from her exposures over the course of her childhood, from a very young age. Sylvie was exposed to many of those same deaths, plus whatever else happened that made her run to escape from… the town, her family, cultural expectations, everything.
Lucille was exposed to them as well, but was able to choose a different path of escape. Perhaps it came down to the chance of genes–Ruthie (and Sylvie) inherited the genetic predisposition to depression while Lucille did not. According to this study and others, at least 40-50% of depression cases are attributable to hereditary factors. While we shouldn’t equate depression with the transient lifestyle Ruthie and Sylvie live at the end of the book, it seems fairly clear from their actions–their “escape,” the fire, the hoarding, etc.–that neither woman is completely well.
Ruthie’s account seems to claim that no one in Fingerbone, Idaho is completely well, however, and, again, the bleakness is overwhelming:
The people of Fingerbone and its environs were very much given to murder. And it seemed that for every pitiable crime there was an appalling accident. What with the lake and the railroads, and what with blizzards and floods and barn fires and forest fires and the general availability of shotguns and bear traps and homemade liquor and dynamite, what with the prevalence of loneliness and religion and the rages and ecstasies they induce, and the closeness of families, violence was inevitable.
It took me quite some time to pin down when the book takes place. Finally, near the end of the story, Ruthie mentions reading Not as a Stranger by Morton Thompson, which was published in 1954. Of course, this still doesn’t necessarily pinpoint it, but it gives the most definitive time reference I found in the whole book–the timeframe, like so much else in Housekeeping is vague and elusive.
Even the setting, unfortunately. I envisioned an icy blue lake, with mountains reaching to the shores, and glaciers in the mountains. But when I went back through the book looking for a description to quote here… I only found a couple, like this one, where Ruthie is in a boat looking at her surroundings–and even this segues into bleakness.
I peered over the side now and then, into the murky transparencies of the upper waters, which were clouded and crude as agate. I saw gulls’ feathers and the black shapes of fish. The fragmented image of jonquil sky spilled from top to top of the rounding waves as the shine spills on silk, and gulls sailed up into the very height of the sky, still stark white when they could just be seen. To the east the mountains were eclipsed. To the west they stood in balmy light. Dawn and its excesses always reminded me of heaven, a place where I have always known I would not be comfortable. They reminded me of my grandfather’s paintings, which I have always taken to be his vision of heaven. And it was he who brought us here, to this bitter, moon-pulled lake, trailing us after him unborn, like the infants he had painted on the dresser drawers, whose garments swam in some ethereal current, perhaps the rim of the vortex that would drag them down out of that enameled sky, stripped and screaming.
Or this description of the winter snows:
It was a hard winter, too. The snow crested, finally, far above our heads. It drifted up our eaves on one side of the house. Some houses in Fingerbone simply fell from the weight of snow on their roofs, a source of grave and perpetual anxiety to my great-aunts, who were accustomed to a brick building, and to living below ground. Sometimes the sun would be warm enough to send a thick sheet of snow sliding off the roof, and sometimes the fir trees would shrug, and the snow would fall with surprisingly loud and earthy thuds, which would terrify my great-aunts. It was by grace of this dark and devastating weather that we were able to go very often to the lake to skate.
And this, which may be the most cheerful passage in the entire book:
For some reason the lake was a source of particular pleasure to Fingerbone that year. It was frozen solid early and long. Several acres of it were swept, for people brought brooms to tend and expand it, till the cleared ice spread far across the lake. Sledders heaped snow on the shore into a precipitous chute that sent them sailing far across the ice. There were barrels on the shore for fires to be built in, and people brought boxes to sit on and planks and burlap bags to stand on around the barrels, and frankfurters to roast, and clothespins to clip frozen mittens to the lips of the barrels.
Maybe that’s because it’s one of the few times the girls spend time away from the house and their relatives!
Anyway, while I’m sure that Idaho has its share of bleakness, I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so intensely bleak. Robinson herself “escaped” from her Idaho upbringing, and, since she was born in 1943, she would have been living there at the time the novel is set.
Overall, the physical descriptions of the glacial lake in the mountains of Idaho’s panhandle may give us some nice images to take away, but I certainly hope that the people of Idaho are not as bleak and depressed as the characters in Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. An ok choice for our reading challenge, but be warned–if you don’t want a depressing read, you might be better off with Borrowed Horses by Sian Griffiths!