Best Book of the Week!
A few years ago I was reading about a nonfiction work called A Jury of Her Peers, which discusses the routine misogyny in the American publishing and academic communities that has resulted in the neglect of works of countless American women writers. This book accomplishes the astounding task of tracing the careers of every significant American woman writer through the twentieth century, including not just the literary writers but even many popular genre writers.
On the Amazon page for the book, the author, Elaine Showalter, includes a great list: Top Ten Books by American Women Writers You Haven’t Read (But Should). My book club read several selections from that list and thoroughly enjoyed all of them. I still have not read them all, but I just recently finished Housekeeping.
First, let me warn about the blurb on the book cover, which makes this novel sound like a cheerful story about an eccentric family. It is not like that at all. The picture on the cover will give you a better idea of the novel.
Ruth and her younger sister Lucille are young girls who have repeatedly been abandoned. As children, they were left on their grandmother’s porch in the cold, remote town of Fingerbone, Idaho, by their mother, who went off to commit suicide by driving off a cliff into the huge glacial lake next to the town. This lake is the scene of another family tragedy, the place where their grandfather, a railroad worker, died when his train plunged off the bridge on the way back from Spokane.
The little girls are raised by their grandmother, a stiff, strict woman who forgets, on the rare occasions when she hugs them, that she has pins and needles stashed in a cloth in her bosom. When she dies, her maiden sisters-in-law take her place, a couple of timid, incompetent great-aunts who feel unequal to the task of raising two growing girls.
Lily and Nona find and summon the girls’ Aunt Sylvia, who was estranged from her mother for years. As soon as Sylvie arrives, the two old ladies skedaddle back to their comfortable room in the Hartwick Hotel in Spokane. Sylvie stays, but the girls are always afraid she will leave. Everything about her seems transient. She keeps a $20 bill pinned inside her lapel and never takes off her coat. She finds old friends in the railroad yard and in box cars and sometimes sleeps outside.
Ruth and Lucille have been inseparable, but soon Ruth feels her sister drifting away, as Lucille makes friends at school and becomes more aware of some salient facts: how unusual their household is and how the townspeople have begun viewing their living environment. Instead of acceding to Lucille’s perfunctory request to let Lucille make her more presentable, tall ungainly Ruth seems to grow more feral. As Lucille turns away from Sylvie and Ruth, Ruth is forced to depend even more on Sylvie.
Water is a persistent image in this disturbing novel. The lake, the scene of their family tragedies, is always there, cold, deep, and mysterious. Many of the girls’ illicit adventures involve exploring this lake. The town floods every year. The landscape is dripping and the road to town muddy. In the early days of Sylvie’s residence with the girls, she buys them cheap sequined ballet slippers to wear to town through the mud.
Every word in this novel is carefully chosen, every sentence exquisite. We can track Ruth’s growing eccentricity and unusual mind by the increasing oddness of her metaphors as she narrates the novel. Housekeeping is a stunning portrait of loss, longing, and fear of abandonment.