Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Books for Writers: Setting Up "Housekeeping"

Since July 2010 I've been trying to get into the heads of two teenage girls, both characters in my would-be novel, Leaving Home. Thus, it was a relief to get some guidance from someone who'd already been there.
Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping is a story of two sisters, Ruth and Lucille, and how they fare under the haphazard stewardship of their family. When the girls' mother, Helen, commits suicide, they are taken under the wing of their grandmother, Sylvia. When the grandmother dies, two bumbling great-aunts, Lily and Nona, step in. Finally, the great-aunts turn the kids over to Sylvie, the girls' mysterious and possibly insane aunt.
Much has been written about the lack of male characters in this book; the only gent who gets substantial mention is Sylvia's husband, Edmund Foster, who died in a train accident long before the girls were born. When Housekeeping came out in 1980, scholars hailed it as an example of the new feminism: a novel about women taking care of business, subverting the patriarchal paradigm, and doing just fine without men. I can see the point, but I might argue the plot relies on these absent men in order to build the characters of the women. Helen commits suicide after being abandoned by her husband and grandma Sylvia seems never to recover from Edmund's death: “With him gone they were cut free from the troublesome possibility of success, recognition or advancement. They had nothing to look forward to, nothing to regret.” (Housekeeping, page 12) When Ruth and Lucille come to live with Sylvia, she's still in mourning and seems barely to see them: “She cared for us like someone reliving a long day in a daydream.” (Housekeeping, page 24.)
I tend to agree with University of Wisconsin Professor Karen Kaivola, who wrote in 1993 that Housekeeping is more about a struggle against social conventions as a whole than with specific gender expectations and roles. “Its acceptance both of Ruth and Sylvie's radical difference as transients and of Lucille and the town's conventionality situates readers in unsettling territories where contradictory perspectives meet.” (The Pleasures and Perils of Merging: Female Subjectivity in Marilyn Robinson's Housekeeping, page 1)
What I most took from Housekeeping was an echo of Charles M. Schultz. Schultz was the creator of the Peanuts comic strips, in which existed a world free of direct adult influence. The adults were there, sure, but always off panel, never seen. In the Peanuts holiday cartoons on television, adult voices were portrayed by goose-honk-like noises, decipherable to the kids, but indecipherable to the viewer.
Ruth and Lucille would find a lot in common with the Peanuts gang. Absent direct upbringing, the girls raised themselves. They got their own meals, woke each other up for school, and spent hours in each other's exclusive company. “We spent the whole of that week at the lake … Of course our aunt Sylvie knew nothing of our truancies, and so there would be her to face. All of this was too dreadful to consider, and every aspect of the situation grew worse with every day that passed., until we began to find a giddy and heavy-hearted pleasure in it.” (Housekeeping, page 79)
The girls are on their own, against any eventuality, much like the Peanuts gang had to deal, adult-free, with the Great Pumpkin, the annual Christmas pageant, and the Red Baron. When Lucille decides to grow up, by changing her image and moving in with a teacher, she disappears from the story for a time, ceasing to matter in the children's word shared by Ruth and, to some degree, Sylvie. “'Why are we staying here, Sylvie?' I asked. 'Waiting for the train,' she said. If I had asked her why we were waiting for the train she would have said, To see it, or she would have said, Why not, or, Since we are here anyway, we might as well watch it go by.” (Housekeeping, page 164.) Might as well sit in the pumpkin patch with Linus all night, just to see who shows up.
Adults and kids are not so different in mind and spirit, Robinson seems to suggest. Divisions arise in responsibilities and coping skills, but not in want or dreams. In writing young protagonists, then, let them exist as they really are, in a world of their own.


  1. I love your comparison of this to the Peanuts series. Wonderful interpretation.

  2. I've always loved the Peanuts series because it captures the other-worldliness of youth. They really do exist on this other plane, looking at the boring grownups like tourists visiting a strange land.

  3. Well put Rob. That’s how I feel when I step into my children’s space at times. I am the tourists, the visitor, an unwanted foreign dignitary. Wonderfully done.

  4. Interesting comparison. I like it. And I agree that children and adults are actually very similar. Children just don't have the experience and the walls yet. Some adults never utilize their experience and some children catch on real fast. I am enjoying having that honking geese parent noise rattling in my head now!Thanks.

  5. Great job Rob! I really enjoyed your last sentence about letting characters exist in their own world- so true! Thanks for the inspiration :)