I read the tenth and penultimate chapter of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping when I’m happy, when I’m sad, and when I want something full of all of the grief and anger and love of life and Christianity. The chapter’s first sentence, below, places the events of the novel in a biblical context. It makes mythic the happenings of the small town of Fingerbone, Idaho, despite their small scale.
Cain murdered Abel, and blood cried out from the earth; the house fell on Job’s children, and a voice was induced or provoked into speaking from a whirlwind; and Rachel mourned for her children; and King David for Absalom. (Housekeeping, 192)
Published in 1980, the novel tells the story of Ruth and her sister Lucille who were raised by a grandmother then great-aunts after their mother’s suicide in the lake of Fingerbone. Eventually, they are passed to their Aunt Sylvie, a transient woman unused to living in a house and unused to children. The story moves from Genesis to Fingerbone where it follows Ruth’s departure. The novel ends with Ruth’s desperate attempt to stay with her aunt although the townsfolk want to move her into a stable, typical Fingerbone home like the one to which her sister Lucille has already moved.
The novel was hardly ignored upon its publication in 1980, but its popularity was surpassed by Robinson’s second novel, Gilead, which won a Pulitzer and established the world in which Robinson would set her next two novels. Those three novels—Gilead, Home, and Lila—deal more clearly with politics than Housekeeping does. And yet Housekeeping, especially its tenth chapter, has confronted me in these fraught political waters of the past two years because now many of us are finally tasting our familial, national, and ancestral ghosts.
And let God purge this wicked sadness away with a flood, and let the waters recede to pools and ponds and ditches, and let every one of them mirror heaven. Still, they taste a bit of blood and hair. One cannot cup one’s hand and drink from the rim of any lake without remembering that mothers have drowned in it, lifting their children toward the air, though they must have known as they did that soon enough the deluge would take all the children, too, even if their arms could have held them up. (193)
Haunting—ancient, ancestral, and potential—fills the pages of Housekeeping. The story weaves its way around death with the suicide of Ruth’s mother, Ruth’s grandmother’s death in old age, the train accident that kills Ruth’s grandfather and many unknown others. At the novel’s end, Ruth abandons her life in the town of Fingerbone with her Aunt Sylvie as they pass a life of transience. Ruth crosses over a lake that holds the bodies of her mother and her grandfather who had died there before Ruth’s birth. But those bodies in the lake next to Fingerbone Lake are never fully gone but always about to walk out and rejoin the living members of the small town’s society.
Life in these United States has felt similarly haunting the past several years. The ghosts of racism and patriotism inextricable from violence appear daily in places we are unused to seeing them. Of course, this racism and violence has existed since the foundation of our country, the United States its own sort of new creation wrought of genocide and inequality. Now, though, as we see it, we must respond to this haunting. I can’t say that the novel gives us a response. After all, the house probably doesn’t burn. Ruth and Sylvie go off alone to live in liminality while Lucille stays behind. Fingerbone, we presume, does not change much. And yet.
There is remembrance, and communion, altogether human and unhallowed. For families will not be broken. Curse and expel them, send their children wandering, drown them in floods and fires, and old women will make songs out of all these sorrows and sit in the porches and sing them on mild evenings. (194)
The tenth chapter places the events in Housekeeping in a history beginning with creation and leading to the departure of Ruth and Sylvie. The text takes for granted the reunification of family, looking toward the restoration of the world by God’s hand. But this reunion is not passive. Family is resurrected with longing and memory, with songs. Over the last few weeks, many of us have heard the cries. They are not the songs of old women, but the weeping of children who are crying out for their parents, an “orchestra” as one can hear an adult voice say in a recording recently published by ProPublica. This action is not new to the United States. Even a glance at our history as a nation can find atrocities committed by the willing and the apathetic.
Robinson describes the novel’s setting, the town of Fingerbone, as a town “chastened again by an awareness that the whole of human history had occurred elsewhere.” The novel ends, however, with a departure, and I think this is where we may take our example. Like Lucille, we may stay with what has been accepted as right and as simple, avoiding a lake with memories of death personal and historical. Or we may abandon this and join our voices with mourning cries. The activist chant “No justice, no peace,” is one that has stuck in my body as I move through my city.
Burn down the house.
Cross the bridge.
No justice, no peace.
Cover image by Tao Yaun.