No one has captured America’s transition from homesteading to rootlessness better than the heartland writer Marilynne Robinson. In her novel, Housekeeping, two orphaned girls are cared for by their grandmother whose sheets “are like vestments flapping in the wind.” This pioneer woman carves a home from the unforgiving wilderness, fashions a fortress to keep out floods and snowfalls, feeds her children from a hand-tilled garden and covers them with handmade quilts.
When the matriarch dies, her home deteriorates, pitifully and slowly, like a person struggling with a chronic illness. You can almost hear it sigh as the girls’ aunt Sylvie takes over. A boxcar drifter, she has no housekeeping skills and soon the rooms are a tangle of tin cans and cobwebs, rags and old newspaper.
In a town like Fingerbone, “a house will return to its feral state unless great effort is applied.” This community is “shallow-rooted” and “chastened by an outsized landscape and extravagant weather.” Though the story is set in the 1950s when Americans were abandoning rural towns and flocking to the cities, the theme is disturbingly current: how we adapt to displacement and upheaval, and why we are continually reinventing our sense of home.
Return to Nature
Published in 1980, Housekeeping was especially prophetic with regard to climate change. In this tale, weather is a main character. The wind and the clouds bear down like angry gods, and when the house is damaged by heavy rains, its wainscoting crumbles, mold creeps into the walls, and the living room turns into a bog. But this chaos doesn’t phase Sylvie at all. Indeed, she seems to thrive on it.
Sylvie in a house was more or less like a mermaid in a ship’s cabin,” Robinson says, “She preferred it sunk in the very element it was meant to exclude.
When the waters recede, Sylvie puts the sofa on the front lawn where it slowly rots, and we see how little she cares for homely things. For her, every possession, every relationship, and every ounce of human progress is ephemeral.
The floods in Fingerbone are almost biblical, reminding that every house and every monument we build will crumble in the course of time.
Even family bonds prove fragile. While Ruth skips school to accompany Sylvie on her expeditions to the lake, learning to how to live lightly and almost reverentially on the land, her younger sister, Lucile moves in with a teacher, grateful to have freshly ironed sheets and home-cooked meals.Robinson is asking us to consider who we are when all our standard props are gone. When the sheriff comes to take Ruth away and place her with “a proper family,” Sylvie sets the house on fire. That night, she flees with Ruth over the old railroad bridge, high above the lake. Looking back at the flames, Sylvie sees the soul of the old homestead, rising in the distance and breaking free of its own chains.