Ghosts haunt the house where sisters Ruth and Lucille find themselves all but abandoned in the impoverished town of Fingerbone. In this astonishingly rich novel, Marilynne Robinson brings all the forces of nature and yearnings into play, in language so descriptive and personal that one could spend hours savoring it.
Though they are too young to remember the train derailment that killed their grandfather, its impact has withered the souls of his descendants. His daughters have departed, leaving his wife to care for Ruth and Lucille until their mother returns, only to vanish into the oblivion of a second incident. Eventually their aunt Sylvie arrives to take over. Her ethereal, distracted personality heightens their fear of abandonment. “We had spent our lives watching and listening with the constant sharp attention of children lost in the dark,” Ruth says late in the narrative.
As time passes the girls react to their predicament in opposite ways – Lucille with an angry resolve to escape, Ruth slowly drowning in Sylvie’s influence. Their grandfather’s legend and their mother’s fate loom over the girls. As Ruth puts it, “Memory is the sense of loss, and loss pulls us after it.”
Reinforcing the atmosphere of decaying life is their rotting community, prone to floods and filled with railroad transients. Ruth and Lucille seem to spend more time in the woods and at the lakeside than in school as the environment exerts its harsh influence.
I could go on and on about the author’s masterful description of life in Fingerbone and the characters who populate the story. But I cannot do justice to it with random quotes. If you treasure great writing, you will find a wealth of it in Housekeeping.