NEA Big Read


Back to Archive


By Marilynne Robinson (1980)

"I have spent my life watching, not to see beyond the world, merely to see, great mystery, what is plainly before my eyes." —from her book The Death of Adam


Even avid readers will be hard pressed to find another novel quite like Marilynne Robinson's luminous Housekeeping. Set in the remote, imaginary town of Fingerbone, Idaho, it presents the precarious and eccentric lives of three generations of Foster family women. Housekeeping chronicles the deaths, abandonments, and insecurities that beset the Fosters so vividly that it is often heartbreaking, but the novel also radiates a mysterious joy and tender humor commensurate with Ruth's childlike capacity for the sheer wonder of being alive.

Introduction to the Book

Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping (1980) tells the story of Ruthie, a quiet, friendless girl living in a remote Idaho town called Fingerbone. The train that travels into the cold mountains of Fingerbone crosses a lake that has claimed the lives of Ruthie's grandfather by accident and her mother by suicide, leaving Ruthie and her younger sister Lucille with their grandmother, Sylvia Foster.

When Sylvia passes away, her two sisters-in-law move to Fingerbone to take care of the girls. Though pleasant and dutiful, Misses Lily and Nona Foster enjoy their solitude. After the first hard winter, they leave Ruthie and Lucille in the hands of a younger guardian, the girls' aunt Sylvie, who returns home after 16 years.

Sylvie, their mother's younger sister, is a boxcar drifter content with her itinerant lifestyle, but she commits to staying in Fingerbone to keep house and raise the girls. She has little experience with either and becomes like a "mermaid in a ship's cabin." Most days, she wanders to the lake by the train tracks and drifts in a stolen rowboat. In a house soon covered in soot and cobwebs, cans and newspapers, she feeds the girls from jelly jars and plates made from detergent boxes.

Ruthie takes it all in stride, but her sister, Lucille, sees the other children in town and wants no part of Sylvie's world. Whereas the sisters are inseparable through much of their young lives, they begin to grow apart in their teenage years. Lucille matures into a prissy woman who swings her hips and sews her own dresses; Ruthie remains a tall, gangly child with a buzzard's hunch and a distaste for school. Soon their lives, like the house and the town and their dark family history, get lost in the tangled overgrowth of loneliness and neglect. The family ties that have kept them together can hold them no more.

In language as lyrical and lush as the landscapes it describes, Robinson tells a haunting story of the permanence of loss and the transitory nature of love. She reminds us that, despite the fragility of human relationships, our desires to hold onto them are what make us whole.

"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 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."
—Marilynne Robinson, from Housekeeping

Major Characters in the Book

Edmund Foster
Although this patriarch is already dead when the novel begins, his decision to settle in the lonesome northwest town of Fingerbone haunts the lives of all the women who survive him. The victim of an eerie nighttime train derailment, his unexpected death forces his wife to raise their three daughters alone.

Sylvia Foster
Sylvia continues to live in her Fingerbone house, with no thought of flight after her husband's death. She raises her children Molly, Helen, and Sylvie with neither complaint nor affection, the same way she cares for Helen's daughters, Ruthie and Lucille, until her own lonely death at 76.

Lily and Nona Foster
Poor and set in their ways, Sylvia's two elderly sisters-in-law move from Spokane to Fingerbone to take care of Ruthie and Lucille after Sylvia's death. As their nerves and habits don't lend themselves to foster-mothering, they are delighted when a note from Sylvie arrives from Montana.

Helen Foster Stone
Years before the novel's action, Helen flees Fingerbone with Reginald Stone, and Sylvia never accepts her daughter's Nevada wedding as legitimate. After almost eight years away, Helen suddenly returns from Seattle and leaves her daughters, Ruthie and Lucille, on Sylvia's porch before driving herself off a cliff and into the same lake that claimed her father's life.

Sylvie Fisher
Helen's younger sister is a tall, gentle 35-year-old woman who evades questions about her marriage. Although she has spent her adult life as a drifter, she returns to Fingerbone to take care of her nieces. Childless and childlike, Sylvie's inability to keep house doesn't interfere with her attachment to Ruthie and Lucille. But Fingerbone's sheriff doesn't agree, and, all the while, the bridge across the lake beckons.

The opening words of Housekeeping—"My name is Ruth"—is almost the only time the novel's narrator isn't called Ruthie. A solitary and sensitive child, Ruthie becomes a tall, gangly young woman who admits that she has "never distinguished readily between thinking and dreaming."

Ruthie's red-haired younger sister is embarrassed by Sylvie's eccentric habits and longs to go to Boston just "because it isn't Fingerbone." By the novel's end, she is perhaps the loneliest character of all.


Marilynne Robinson

Photo © Nancy Crampton

Marilynne Robinson (b. 1943)

As one might imagine from reading her work, Marilynne Robinson is passionately tied to the dramatic northwest landscape of her childhood. She was born in Sandpoint, Idaho, where her family had lived for four generations: her grandparents were farmers and ranchers; her father was in the lumber industry. Robinson recalls hearing the whistles of passing trains, though "nothing ever seemed to stop" at the railroad junction in town.

She spent many hours at the edge of Sandpoint's large, cold, beautiful lake. Robinson's two sets of grandparents lived at opposite ends of the bridge that crossed the lake, which claimed the life of her mother's brother in a sailing accident before Robinson was born.

After graduating high school in nearby Coeur d'Alene, Robinson followed her brother to Brown University in Rhode Island, where she studied with the writer John Hawkes and nurtured her interest in 19th-century American literature and creative writing. She graduated in 1966, and from there went on to earn a PhD in English from the University of Washington in Seattle.

Once she completed her dissertation on Shakespeare, she was ready to begin work on Housekeeping, her first novel. She wrote much of it while teaching in France and, after that, in Massachusetts. She gave a draft of the novel to her friend and fellow writer John Clayton, who passed it on to an agent without her knowledge. "If he hadn't done that," said Robinson, "I'm not at all sure that I would ever have submitted it for publication." It was published in 1980 to widespread critical acclaim, winning the PEN/Hemingway Award for best first novel.

Since Housekeeping, Robinson has written many essays and book reviews in journals such as Harper's, the Paris Review, and the New York Times Book Review. Robinson's second novel, Gilead, was published in 2004. It won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.

Robinson has served as visiting professor and writer-in-residence at several colleges and universities in the U.S. and abroad. In 1991, she joined the faculty of the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. She currently resides in Iowa, where she teaches and writes.

An Interview with Marilynne Robinson

On January 9, 2008, Dan Stone of the National Endowment for the Arts interviewed Marilynne Robinson at her home in Iowa City. Excerpts from their conversation follow.

Dan Stone: What was your childhood like in Sandpoint and Coeur d'Alene?

Marilynne Robinson: Sandpoint, at that time, had a more remote feeling than Coeur d'Alene, at least from my point of view. Both sets of my grandparents lived in Sandpoint, at the opposite ends of the bridge that crossed the lake which became Housekeeping's Fingerbone in my imagination. The most dramatic moments of my childhood all come from Sandpoint.

DS: Are those mostly memories or experiences of the outdoors?

MR: Yes, the landscape more than anything else. The lake is very impressive. It's very large and cold. It's like the local spirit of the place, and we spent a lot of time just hovering on the edges of it, looking at it and dipping into it.

DS: In Housekeeping, the accident with the train is especially poignant. Was there also the sense of mystery and loss associated with the lake?

MR: Before I was born, my mother's brother died in an accident, in a sailboat that was swept against a rock. That was a very great loss to my mother's family. I think my family stayed in northern Idaho because of the lake, because it was very beautiful. It's never been the easiest place in the world to live, you know. It's hard to describe, but it was as if they found something irrefutable, something they couldn't turn their backs on.

DS: Is there significance to the name "Fingerbone"? There is one reference in the novel to a Native-American tribe called the Fingerbone tribe.

MR: In Idaho, Pend Oreille means "earbob," then there's the Nez Perce and Flathead—all the Indian names in that part of the country seem to refer to fragments of a body in one way or another. When I was a very small child, my father was changing a tire and he dropped the tire iron on the frozen ground. It bounced from end to end, and it made three equal sounds, three equal syllables. I remember being struck by this. The ground was so cold that there was no diminishing of the impact. Fingerbone sounds to me like three equal syllables, along with a feeling of coldness and hardness.

DS: Was the line "Like a long legged fly upon the stream, his mind moves upon silence"—from Yeats's poem "Long-legged Fly"—in your mind when you were working on this novel?

MR: Yes. Remember, I didn't write the novel with the expectation it would be published. I studied English literature in graduate school, so Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and Ralph Waldo Emerson were on my mind. I've often thought that Henry David Thoreau's Walden could be called Housekeeping.

DS: Housekeeping is such a lyrical book, particularly during some of Ruth's internal musings. Do you write out loud?

MR: I hear a voice that I would say is not my voice. When I read Housekeeping out loud, I hear it over again in my mind. I'm very interested in the musicality of language. I spend a lot of time just listening to Bach, just to hear how a sentence falls in a certain sense. So that's what I do: I hear what I write, but I don't speak it out loud. I hear it in my mind.

  1. Why might Marilynne Robinson have titled her first novel Housekeeping? What does housekeeping mean in the context of the novel?
  2. Since Housekeeping is narrated by Ruth, everything we know is filtered through her perspective. Do you believe she is a reliable narrator? How might the story be different if told from another character's point of view?
  3. Robinson thinks of the novel as set in the 1950s. What indications are there of this?
  4. How does the town of Fingerbone shape the novel's characters? How does the house itself affect Ruthie and Lucille? Consider the influence of your own hometown and childhood home on the person you've become.
  5. What similarities exist among the three generations of Foster women? What kind of generational patterns can you identify in your own family?
  6. After Nona and Lily leave, Ruthie has frequent nightmares that she and Lucille are taken away from Sylvie. How do these—and her other dreams of trains and bridges—foreshadow the future?
  7. In the beginning of Chapter 6, Ruthie muses, "Perhaps we all awaited a resurrection." What does she mean by this, and how does this suggest a theme of the novel?
  8. How do Sylvie's housekeeping habits compare those of her mother and the great-aunts? How do Lucille's personal habits compare with Ruthie's?
  9. Robinson says that when writing Housekeeping, water was on her mind as "a very good metaphor for consciousness, for the artificial accidental surface of consciousness and then everything behind and beyond it." How does this apply to the novel, especially with respect to Sylvie?
  10. Why does Lucille leave the house to live in her home economics teacher's spare bedroom?
  11. If you were the child-welfare officer or sheriff, what would you have done with Ruthie and Lucille? How would you defend your decision?
  12. At the end of the novel, why do Sylvie and Ruthie take such an extreme step?


Housekeeping Audio Guide


Audio Tabs

A National Endowment for the Arts audio guide about Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping featuring Susan Balée, Annette Bening, Dana Gioia, Pico Iyer, Bret Lott, Aimee Mann, Marilynne Robinson, and Jim White.