Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
published 1980 Ch 7 Set in a small town in Idaho in the 1950s
[Ruth and Lucille are being looked after by their unconventional aunt, and Lucille is becoming increasingly unhappy about this, and anxious to fit in]
Two older girls whom Lucille had somehow contrived to know slightly sat down beside us and started to show us patterns and cloth they had bought to sew for school…
When Lucille came home she was carrying a bag in which there was a dress pattern with four yards of cream-and-brown-checked wool. “It will all be co-ordinated” she said. “It will go with my hair.” She was deeply serious. “You have to help me. The instructions tell how to do it.” We cleared away the clutter on the kitchen table, which was considerable…
[The girls fight over the dressmaking project, and Lucille carries on alone]
Lucille had taped a sign on the door that said, in letters of unctuous neatness and clarity, DO NOT DISTURB… For many days there was no sign that the dress would ever be done, or the hostilities ended. But one day I was sitting in the kitchen eating a sandwich and reading a book when Lucille came downstairs with her dress bundled up in her arms and stuffed it into the stove. She bunched a newspaper and pushed it in, and dropped a lighted match on it. The kitchen began to smell like smouldering hair.
Lucille sat down across from me. “I didn’t even bother to take the pins out” she said.
observations: Housekeeping resembles no other novel, and is one of the finest books of the 20th century. This is a heartbreaking scene, most particularly because you can see Lucille’s point – Sylvie is one of the greatest aunts in fiction, but she IS most peculiar, and it would be hard to withstand the feeling that you really weren’t like everyone else in this small town. Lucille just wants to feel normal. Ruth, quiet, silent, passive, doesn’t mind nearly so much – though even she isn’t certain about Sylvie’s ways. The differing fates of the sisters lives on in the mind – ‘there was an end to housekeeping.’
Marilynne Robinson is in the UK at the moment, and (like this author) proved to be a wonderful speaker. She has a new book out, a collection of essays called When I was a child I read books, and the title piece is largely about the American West, and how that bears on the range of allusions in Housekeeping and the ideas behind it.
Links up with: Anne Shirley had a dress made for her, Miss Read taught useful sewing, and Flora Poste makes a petticoat at Cold Comfort Farm.
Thanks to Barbara for the idea and for the opportunity.
The picture comes from the Oregon State University collection via Flickr.