Marilynne Robinson's Small, Rich Body of Work

After their grandmother's death, two great aunts come to take over the household but soon long to escape Fingerbone and return to Seattle. Then, Sylvie, Ruthie's aunt, returns to the gothic house she grew up in to take care of the girls, who are now teenagers. At first Ruthie and Lucille, who see in Sylvie a sort of return of their mother, are ecstatic. She sings nostalgic songs like "Irene" and "What'll I Do When You Are Far Away?" and imposes no strictures on them. The girls choose to skip school and take long hikes in the woods.

But Lucille is at first irritated and then alarmed by Sylvie's growing eccentricity. She washes tin cans and stacks them in the kitchen and collects newspapers for no apparent reason, putting them in stacks in the living and dining rooms. Desperate to escape her family's shattered history and to join the middleclass, Lucille leaves the house and takes shelter with one of her teachers.

Ruthie, though, is gradually drawn towards Sylvie's rootlessness. She finds the past a burden: "Memory is the sense of loss, and loss pulls us after it."When local authorities threaten to take custody of the girls, Ruthie and Sylvie leave town for a life of drifting. Some day, she muses, "When I am feeling presentable, I will go into Fingerbone and make inquiries. I must do it soon for such days are rare now."

I find myself struggling to put words to what I love about Housekeeping. After rereading it, I realize I'm touched by the way that nothing in Robinson's world is inconsequential. The sisters, who skip school a lot, enjoy taking long walks at dawn. On one walk, they are joined in the road

By a fat old bitch with a naked black belly and circles of white around her eyes. She was called Crip, because as a puppy she had favored one leg and now that she was an elderly dog she favored three. She tottered after us briskly, a companionable gleam in her better eye. I describe her at length because a mile or so from town she disappeared into the woods as if following a scent and never appeared again. She was a dog of no special consequence, and she passed from the world unlamented. Yet something of the somberness with which Lucille and I remembered this outing had to do with our last glimpse of her fat haunches and her palsied, upright tail as she clamored up the rocks and into the dusky dark of the woods.

Crip passed from the world unlamented except by Marilynne Robinson.

This sense of the importance of things permeates Housekeeping. Inanimate objects that fill their house have significance, "For even things lost in a house abide, like forgotten sorrows and incipient dreams ... like the dim coil of thick hair, saved from my grandmother's girlhood."

THE FAINT WHIFF of nihilism that exists in Housekeepingmay seem surprising to those who discovered Robinson through Gilead and Home, with their reverence for tradition. Set in Iowa, the two novels center around the families of a Congregationalist minister named John Ames and his lifelong friend, a Presbyterian minister named Robert Boughton. There is no way to make that plot description sound timely, relevant, or contemporary to avid readers of Jonathan Franzen or Zadie Smith; you'll simply have to trust an avid reader of Franzen and Smith when he tells you how Gilead and Home can draw you in. One might also trust James Wood, who wrote about Gilead (and would, I think, extend the same praise to Home) that it "achieves an almost holy simplicity."

Events in Home revolve primarily around the Reverend Boughtonand his prodigal son Jack, who has lived the life of a drifter—one wonders if he somewhere on the road his path crossed Sylvie and Ruthie's. Jack has spent time in jail and fathered a child with a black woman, the latter of which does not appall his family so much as puzzle them. The happiness stirred by his return home is mitigated by the unspoken knowledge that he cannot stay and ultimately cannot find peace in his father's religion.

Reverend Boughton is almost unique in stories about religious patriarchs in that he has virtually no ego and does not preach to his children. He is also unaware of nearly all social and political changes that have occurred since he was a boy. Like so many otherwise good men, he believes that the way things were when he was a young manare the way the world is supposed to be. The Civil Rights movement, for instance, which intrigues Jack so much, is unfathomable to him.

If Robinson werea lesser novelist, one writing to warm our hearts, she would lead us down a path through which Jack and his father could reconcile. But the final pages of Home linger in the reader's mind like an open wound of the heart.

The sister left behind to care for their father reflects on Jack and the son she didn't know he had, "She knew it would have answered a longing of Jack's if he could even imagine that their spirits had passed through that strange old house. Just the thought of it might bring him back, and the place would seem changed, to him and to her. As if all that saving and keeping their father had done was providence indeed, and new love would transform all the old love and make its relics wonderful." As a novelist Robinson illuminates the souls of people who live lives of quiet desperation.

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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