Housekeeping Summary

Marilynne Robinson


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Housekeeping Summary

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Housekeeping is a 1980 novel by Marilynne Robinson, taking place in a small Idaho town named Fingerbone and focusing on the Foster clan, an extended family touched by tragedy. In covering this family and the town that surrounds them, Housekeeping explores themes of loss and tragedy and the different ways people cope with them. It also explores the social construction of family, domesticity, and home, using the title as a way to explore housekeeping not only in the domestic sense of cleaning, but in the larger sense of creating a spiritual home for family and for one’s self in the face of loss. The book takes place in the second half of the 20th century, although no specific year is mentioned. The context of the Western Railroads and the development of the American West influences the book heavily, as does the life story of family patriarch Edmund Foster, whose decision to settle in Fingerbone and death later in the story set the events of the book in motion.

The main character and narrator is Ruthie, a quiet and solitary girl who is shuffled from relative to relative along with her younger sister Lucille. After their mother commits suicide by driving into Fingerbone’s lake, Ruthie and Lucille are placed with their grandmother, Sylvia Foster. A widow since a mysterious train derailment claimed her husband’s life decades earlier, Sylvia lives alone and takes in her grandchildren until she passes away at seventy-six. Her sisters-in-law, Lily and Nona, agree to come to Fingerbone to take custody of Ruthie and Lucille, but find themselves unable to handle the hard Idaho winter and seek another guardian for the girls.

This leads Ruthie and Lucille to the home of their Aunt Sylvie, their mother’s younger sister, who left Fingerbone sixteen years earlier. An eccentric drifter with no desire to settle down, she nonetheless agrees to return to Fingerbone to keep house and raise the girls after being contacted by Lily and Nona. Although her housekeeping skills are anything but advanced, she tackles her new responsibilities with enthusiasm and does her best to make a home for Ruthie and Lucille.

The girls are shocked by the run-down home filled with cobwebs and junk when they first move in. The makeshift family even lacks plates, often eating off cardboard cut from detergent boxes. Sylvie’s approach to parenting is similarly eccentric and unconventional. She is frequently willing to write the girls elaborate excuse notes to get them out of school, a fact that causes trouble for the family later in the book. Although Ruthie takes their unusual new lifestyle in stride, Lucille wants to feel normal. She sees the other children in town and how they live, and rejects Sylvie’s world.

Although the two sisters were inseparable as children, coming to depend on each other to make it through the loss and tragedy they encountered from a young age, they begin to drift apart as they reach adolescence. While Ruthie remains awkward, gangly, and asocial, Lucille turns herself into a social butterfly. Flirtatious and a budding fashionista, she prefers the company of her new friends over her family. Soon the family ties that brought them through tragedy as children are no longer enough to keep them bonded, and their lives begin to move in opposite directions.

Eventually, Lucille decides to leave the unconventional house that had become their home, and the courts begin investigating Sylvie’s house. When Ruthie’s well-being is questioned by the authorities, Sylvie chooses to return to her previous lifestyle as a drifter, only this time with Ruthie by her side. The two find a very different kind of home, far away from the tragedy-filled memories of Fingerbone. While Lucille chooses to move to Boston, more alone than she ever was despite her pursuit of being more like everyone else, Sylvie and Ruthie form their own, unconventional family as they head out towards an uncertain but exciting future.

Housekeeping is considered a classic work of small-town American literature and the modern American West, receiving critical acclaim from its release. Robinson was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (which she would win for her second novel, Gilead), and won the Hemingway Award for Best First Novel. It has been placed on several lists of the best novels of the 20th century. In 1987, Housekeeping was adapted into a live-action film starring Christine Lahti as Sylvie, which received critical acclaim as well. Lahti was nominated for Best Actress by the New York Film Critics Circle. Despite the massive acclaim for her first novel, Robinson took twenty-four years to release her next work of fiction, although she has released three in the decade since. She is also a prolific non-fiction and political writer, and has been published in journals including the New York Review of Books, where she interviewed President Barack Obama in 2015.