Monday, 12 March 2012

for the domestically challenged

Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson
If you’re feeling uncomfortable about your domestic skills, read Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson.  I read this harrowing novel while living in a log house in the snowbelt, just out of Nelson, BC.  The sun went behind the mountain at two in the afternoon, and it was black o’clock by three in the winter.  Snow ranged from four to six feet deep, and that’s where it fell naturally.  There was very little wind, so it didn’t drift.

This novel could have been set in my location, judging from descriptions of their heavy snow load crushing roofs, and the spring melting that caused floods.  A friend pointed out to me that the novel’s fictitious setting of Fingerbone was actually Sandpoint, Idaho, a town just a little to the south of us, across the American border.  The book seems to be set in the 50s, and a film was made in Nelson, parts of which still look like the 50s, so it made a good stand in.  So while the geography of this novel first grabbed me, I was further pulled in by the anti-social  but brilliant Ruth, whose mother has committed suicide, abandoning Ruth and her sister, Lucille.  As the sisters are school age, the authorities step in and insist that guardians look after them.  Two elderly great aunts reluctantly take on the job, but eventually escape back to their own narrow, stifling lives.  Their mother’s sister, Sylvie, appears almost mysteriously, an ephemeral creature with no domestic skills, preferring to sit in the dark and contemplate the moon when most moms would be busy scrubbing pots and pans after supper had been served.  The authorities are dissatisfied with Sylvie’s attempts at running a household, despite her valiant effort of stacking all the tin cans into a pyramid to impress them with her organizing skills.  The younger sister, Lucille, escapes the mildewing chaos of the family home by moving in with her home economics teacher who practices what she preaches.  Ruth is left to the mercies of Sylvie.  You will have to decide for yourself which sister is left better off.
This challenging novel will shift your attitude toward domesticity one way or another… 

They would have had no one to clear their snow...

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