Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Ruth and her sister Lucille grew up together as orphans, first under the care of their grandmother, Sylvia Foster. They were then cared for, briefly, by their two unmarried great-aunts, Lily and Nona Foster. Finally, their mother’s younger sister, Sylvie Fisher, took them in after Lily and Nana could not handle caring for them. The girls were raised—by these different women—in the house built by Ruth and Lucille’s grandfather, Edmund Foster. Longing for the mountains, Edmund had taken a train west to Fingerbone, Idaho, worked for the railroad, and prospered. He died in a train derailment on the bridge that crosses Fingerbone’s large glacial lake.
Ruth tells the following story about her family: Her newly widowed grandmother stays in Fingerbone and raises Molly, Helen, and Sylvie. After five years of quiet, orderly routine, the girls leave home. Molly goes to China as a missionary; Helen elopes with Reginald Stone to Seattle, becomes a single mother, and raises Ruth and Lucille with the help of a neighbor; and Sylvie marries a man named Fisher and becomes a drifter.
More than seven years later, Helen returns to Fingerbone with Ruth and Lucille, leaves them on their grandmother’s front porch, drives a borrowed Ford into the lake, and drowns. Grandmother Sylvia cares for the girls for five years before dying. Her unmarried sisters-in-law, Lily and Nona, come to care for the girls, but are overwhelmed. They send for Sylvie, the...
(The entire section is 924 words.)
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Chapter 1 Summary
The narrator, a young woman named Ruth, recounts the family history which led to her living with her sister, Lucille, under the care of her Aunt Sylvie. Ruth and Lucille’s family hailed from a Midwestern town named Fingerbone, adjacent to a lake of considerable size. Their grandfather, Edmund, was an employee of the railroad who married Ruth and Lucille’s grandmother. Edmund worked his way up in the railroad industry over the years until his untimely death in a rail accident. One evening, the locomotive on which Edmund was working had slipped off of the tracks on the bridge crossing over the giant lake near Fingerbone. The accident happened in the middle of the night, so no one was quite sure where in the wintry lake the train had landed. Two men standing at the back of the train had escaped with their lives, but the rest went under the water with the train and never came out. That night and the following morning, numerous efforts were made by divers to rescue people from the train, but only a few odd pieces of debris turned up.
Ruth and Lucille’s grandmother raised her three teenage daughters (including the girls’ mother, Helen) for the next five years. Once Helen and her sisters came of age, they left the homestead. One sister, Molly, became a missionary and left for San Francisco; Helen eloped with a man named Reginald (Ruth and Lucille’s father), much to her mother’s chagrin; Sylvie also married, but did so at home in Fingerbone. Ruth has almost no memory of her father; she relies on a few photographs her mother has. While Helen worked, a neighbor named Bernice often looked after Ruth and Lucille. One week, Helen borrows Lucille’s car and drives the girls to Fingerbone. Knowing her mother will not be at home, Lucille leaves the girls and their luggage on their grandmother’s porch, along with some snacks to eat. Helen then drives away to a cliff overlooking the lake; she drives off the cliff into the lake, leaving her daughters in the care of their grandmother.
Their grandmother (who, like their aunt, was also named Sylvia) dutifully cared for the girls, even though she seemed all too aware of the fact that she had been down the road of motherhood before, and her offspring had abandoned her. In consideration of her advanced years, Sylvia talked with her granddaughters about what would become of the m when she passed away. Sylvia intended for her two younger sisters-in-law, Lily and Nona, to come and live...
(The entire section is 439 words.)
Chapter 2 Summary
Five years later, Sylvia (the elder) dies and her plan finally comes to fruition. One morning, Lucille and Ruth go into their grandmother’s room and are unable to wake her. Soon after, their grandmother’s sisters-in-law, Lily and Nona, arrive to live with and take care of the girls. The two are a pair of blue-haired, squat old ladies prone to having private conversations that are audible to the whole house because they are both hearing impaired. When they first arrive, they both seem quite nervous and are unsure how to behave around Lucille and Ruth. That night, the older women talk about their sister-in-law and how young she was to have died (at aged seventy-six). They note that Ruth and Lucille are attractive enough, but pale in comparison to their grandmother. They also wonder why all of Sylvia’s children turned out so poorly, especially the itinerant Sylvie, whom they haven’t been able to reach to inform her of her mother’s passing.
Since it is the middle of winter, the lake in Fingerbone freezes into solid ice, and the girls revel in ice skating there. Other people from the town skate or bring sleds to enjoy some outdoor activity. When Lucille and Ruth arrive home after dark one night, Lily and Nona admonish them for their tardiness. They remind the girls that the town is perilous for them because of the absence of street lights and the bitter, bitter cold. Ruth notes that Lily and Nona thrive on repetition and structure; thus, their transition to living in their sister-in-law’s house has been difficult.
Following the skating incident, the old women have more late-night chats about the girls’ future. They dream of taking the girls back to where they used to live, but doubt they will be accepted. Suddenly, the two become much more interested in tracking down Sylvie. They express concern that Sylvie might accidentally find out about her mother from the papers, so they compose a letter to send to her despite not having her address. Fortunately, Sylvie sends a note to her mother (whom she does not is dead) providing her new address. Eventually, Lily and Nona are convinced that Sylvie would be a much better fit for taking care of Ruth and Lucille. As with all of their chats, this one is overheard by Lucille and Ruth. To them, their aunt is a mysterious and intriguing figure. Both of them argue about what she will look like and whether or not she will resemble their mother.
(The entire section is 424 words.)
Chapter 3 Summary
The great aunts carefully construct a letter to Sylvie asking her consider coming to Fingerbone to spend some time with the girls. Though they are anxious for Sylvie to stay on, they try to present their plan as merely hypothetical. After weeks of no contact from Sylvie, Lily and Nona begin to fret about the possibility that Sylvie might say no, or never respond at all. Unexpectedly, Sylvie knocks at the door and the old women let her in, clucking and fussing over her. Sylvie is in her mid-30s and is inadequately dressed for the harsh winter weather. Sylvie eats some eggs as the aunts loudly discuss their approval of her as though no one in the room could overhear them. Lucille and Ruth help their aunt take her belongings to her room. She promises to get them some kind of present and then bids them good night.
Lucille and Ruth are used to having the house to themselves in the mornings, so they are surprised to find their aunt sitting at the kitchen table in the dark in her rain coat. She jokes about her preference for the dark, and then makes the girls’ breakfast. Ignoring an agreed-upon gradual protocol, Lucille bluntly asks Sylvie about their mother. Sylvie offers a few details, but nothing along the lines of a complete picture of their mother. Sylvie makes it clear that she and Helen had very limited contact after Helen got married. The girls also ask about their father, and Sylvie has even less information about him. Ruth remembers her father’s disappearance and Bernice delivering to Helen a letter from him. When she thought she was alone, Helen tore up the letter (envelope included) without opening it. She explains to the girls that it is for the best. The girls are now doubly frustrated because Sylvie’s estrangement from her sister means she won’t be able to shed any light on their father’s whereabouts.
Sylvie abruptly announces she’s headed downtown for some errands, and Lucille thinks Sylvie is going to sneak off on the train. The girls throw on their winter gear over their nightgowns follow Sylvie downtown. After watching her throw some ice at a clutch of noisy, mangy dogs, they see Sylvie go to the train station. When they confront her about what appears to be her departure, she insists that she simply came in to the station because it was warm. She then tells them that she’s decided to stay, and buys them a snack. She takes them home, and the great aunts fuss about their collective disappearance....
(The entire section is 472 words.)
Chapter 4 Summary
Within a week of the transfer of Lucille and Ruth’s guardianship from Lily and Nona to Sylvie, Fingerbone receives an unusually large amount of rain. The problem this presents for the community is that the winter temperatures have prevented the ground from thawing, so the rain begins to flood all of the homes and buildings. This flooding has long been a problem for the community, but the house in which Sylvie, Lucille and Ruth live has never been damaged by it due to its high altitude. Unfortunately, the persistence of the rain leaves the house flooded for the first time. Lucille, Ruth and Sylvie begin wearing wading boots when they are downstairs, and their every movement sends ripples and waves throughout the house. From their window, they can see people on lower land whose houses are immersed even more than their own. Lucille is particularly drawn to the various sights of the flooding and is concerned that one of the neighbor’s homes has moved off of its foundation.
With the flooding not receding, the girls and their aunt spend a lot of time upstairs playing cards. This eventually bores Lucille because she wants to go out exploring in the community. Sylvie is puzzled by her desire and attributes it to loneliness. This leads Sylvie into a long, circuitous story about a lonely woman she encountered once on a bus who claimed to have four or five children. Sylvie questions the woman’s honesty because she couldn’t understand why the woman didn’t have any children with her. The only possible solution she offers is that the woman had her children taken away by the court. This offhanded revelation makes the girls realize that they could possibly be taken away from Sylvie, an outcome that seems to bother Ruth more than Lucille. They ask why Sylvie never had children of their own, and she lightly chastises them for being impolite without giving a clear answer. Later, when they go downstairs, there is no light, and all of them must feel their way around the kitchen. When Sylvie becomes unusually still and quiet, the girls start to worry that she has gone on one of her wandering walks—or abandoned them altogether. Sylvie finally reveals her presence, and they all head upstairs to play cards.
When the flooding finally subsides, the girls’ house is far less damaged than everyone else’s. The surprising result of the flooding is that it puts Sylvie and the girls in much greater contact with the people of the community....
(The entire section is 492 words.)
Chapter 5 Summary
Lucille and Ruth have always gone largely unnoticed at the secondary school they attend. They are quiet, present no disciplinary issues, and earn grades neither too high nor too low to attract the attention of the faculty. Lucille begins trying to avoid school by pretending to be sick, which Sylvie allows. When Lucille is finally sent to school again the following week, she brings a note Sylvie wrote explaining her absence. In it, Sylvie accurately describes the vagueness of Lucille’s “symptoms,” as well as their brevity and lack of severity. Lucille fears the school will know she faked and decides to skip school. Ruth decides to skip with her, and the two spend their days down by the water, waiting to be caught.
On their fourth day of truancy, the girls notice Sylvie at the lake a little ways down from them. As Sylvie tends to be in her own mental world, she takes no notice of the girls. As Sylvie makes her way along the water’s edge, the girls follow her with great curiosity. Sylvie politely greets some fishermen she passes until she arrives at the great train trestle that crosses the lake. She climbs out on to the edge of the trestle and begins walking out onto the bridge, slat by slat. When she gets to the middle, she begins peering over the edge, taking no notice of the windy weather. The girls are terrified about the dangerousness of her position and debating what to do when Sylvie suddenly looks up and sees them. She walks back along the trestle and comes to meet with them, unperturbed by the fact that they are not in school. The girls know that Sylvie could have easily fallen, and the town would have taken it for a suicide (given her family history). Sylvie acknowledges that without displaying much concern over the safety hazards. Ruth is concerned that Sylvie might have intended to fall or jump, and she and Lucille become convinced of their aunt’s instability.
The next week, the girls go back to school and no one questions their absences; they seem to have gone unnoticed. At home, Sylvie moves downstairs into what used to be her mother Sylvia’s room. The girls enjoy exploring their grandmother’s drawers and find some information about their Aunt Molly’s missionary work. Ruth begins to get used to Sylvie, but Lucille seems to take a disliking to her. Sylvie occasionally gives them odd, impractical and cheaply made gifts, such as sequined ballet slippers. Lucille deliberately destroys these gifts in...
(The entire section is 446 words.)
Chapter 6 Summary
As winter ends and spring sets in, Lucille and Ruth began skipping school again. They make a pretense of walking in the direction of school at the appropriate time, even though Sylvie seems aware of their deceit. When inquiries from the school ask after Ruth and Lucille, Sylvie simply explains that the absences are attributed to Ruth’s adolescent developments. Ironically, Sylvie is not altogether wrong; Ruth notices her sister’s figure changing along with her moodiness. Ruth herself notices no such development of her own and continues to feel tall and gangly. At night, the girls return to find their aunt sitting in the dark, as is her custom. On one of these evenings, Lucille impertinently asks Sylvie about her husband’s whereabouts. Initially, Sylvie dodges the questions, but admits that she is still married to her husband, although she has lost all contact with him. She explains that she met him when he was in the service, but Lucille doubts Sylvie’s explanation. Sylvie accepts her niece’s lack of belief without it fazing her.
Lucille becomes increasingly hostile towards Sylvie and tires of her eccentricities. Some of these eccentricities show up in the way she keeps the house. Sylvie regularly brings home newspapers and saves empty cans. During one of these outings, Sylvie strikes up a conversation with a transient woman, and relates the story to the girls that evening. Lucille is completely aghast by the company Sylvie keeps. Lucille’s negative attitude towards Sylvie worsens when the girls find their aunt sleeping on a bench in town with a newspaper. While Ruth is intrigued by Sylvie’s behavior, Lucille reprimands her for it. By summer, Lucille had struck up a friendship with Rosette Browne, whose mother frequently inquires about Sylvie’s bizarre behavior. Sylvie seems unruffled by Lucille’s criticism. In fact, the day they find Sylvie on the bench, the girls are surprised when Sylvie leaves the house and goes back to the bench to retrieve something they forgot. Sylvie returns with huckleberries and makes them some pancakes to eat. As Ruth analyzes her sister’s resistance, she believes that Lucille’s opposition to Sylvie is about transience. This transience is what makes Sylvie seem exotic and appealing to Ruth; in fact, Ruth worries that if Sylvie loses her sense of transience and feels too tied down, she won’t stay. As Lucille glowers and eats her food, Sylvie remarks how much the two girls remind her of...
(The entire section is 422 words.)
Chapter 7 Summary
During the summer, the girls’ lack of structure under Sylvie’s supervision worsens. One evening, Lucille and Ruth stray too far into the woods and get lost. They end up building a ramshackle fort and sleeping outdoors surrounded by wild animals and all of the elements. When they finally get home, bedraggled and exhausted, Sylvie acts as if there is nothing unusual about their disappearance. This seems to enrage Lucille even more than usual, and she storms off to her room. After dozing fitfully, Ruth goes to see Lucille, who insists that they dress up and go into town. Lucille is particularly fussy about Ruth’s choice in clothing, and the two finally head off to town. Lucille becomes increasingly exasperated by Ruth’s awkwardness as they shop; eventually she asks her sister to go home.
When Lucille returns home, she has purchased fabric and a pattern to make herself a new dress. Lucille enlists Ruth to help her, and asks her sister to get a dictionary to look up unfamiliar terminology in the pattern’s instructions. As Ruth flips through the dictionary, she finds pressed flowers and becomes distracted by them. Lucille wants help with the sewing while Ruth ponders where to put the pressed flowers. Frustrated, Lucille deliberately crushes the flowers and yells at her sister for being unwilling to help her. They get into a big fight and don’t speak to each other for several days. Lucille doesn’t have much luck in constructing the dress and one day brings the dress down and burns it in the stove, pins and all. Ruth and Lucille make some amends, but Lucille is disturbed by Ruth’s similarity to Sylvie. Insisting that they have isolated themselves, Lucille tells her sister that they need to socialize with other people.
On the first day of school, the principal calls the sisters into the office demanding an explanation for their absences from school the previous year. Ruth says little, and Lucille tries to blame Sylvie. Lucille then proceeds to ignore Ruth at school as she attempts to make friends of her own. One night, after a school dance, Lucille packs a bag and goes to the home of Miss Royce, the home economics teacher, begging to stay with her. Miss Royce, already getting wind of Sylvie’s unusual handling of the girls, relents. Sylvie is puzzled by Lucille’s departure and vows to become closer to Ruth. She makes plans for them to spend Monday together, promising to write a note to excuse Ruth from school.
(The entire section is 425 words.)
Chapter 8 Summary
Well before dawn the next morning, Sylvie wakes Ruth from a dead sleep and rushes her out the door. Sylvie has already packed a lunch, and practically forces breakfast onto Ruth. The two make their way in the dark down to the water where Sylvie insists there is a boat that she has been borrowing. When the boat is not in the place where she expects it, Sylvie explains that the boat is often moved to a different place. She finds it buried under some tree branches and ignores Ruth’s concerns that it belongs to someone else who doesn’t want her to use it. Sylvie hurries Ruth into the boat, pushes off, and begins rowing just as a man appears headed toward the shore. The man shouts at Sylvie and throws rocks at the boat while Sylvie rows furiously. The man follows them along the shore for some time, but eventually gives up and fades into the distance.
After a long trip, they eventually bring the ship ashore at one of the many islands in the middle of the huge lake. Sylvie insists that many people live on the islands, including children. During her previous visits there, Sylvie has been sure that some of the island children have been nearby, but she hasn’t seen them. She brings food in the pockets of her jacket, hoping they will show up and wonders if Lucille’s presence will lure them out. They go searching around, and suddenly Ruth realizes that Sylvie has disappeared. She searches for her for a long time, and becomes increasingly alarmed. Ruth finds the wreckage of a collapsed house and begins to toss lumber aside hoping to be able to build a fort for herself. She is near hysteria at the thought of having been abandoned when Sylvie reappears. Ruth collapses weeping into her arms, and Sylvie comforts her. It is very late when they head out, and darkness soon sets in. They become disoriented and have trouble finding their way back. Ruth dozes periodically as Sylvie rows. Eventually they get their bearings and realize they are far out of town. Sylvie decides to park the boat and walk up to the train tracks and catch a train into town.
The wait for the train feels endless; when one finally appears, Sylvie and Ruth jump into an open boxcar. They ride into town in the company of an indigent woman and jump off at the station in town. They walk through town back to the house and Ruth feels highly conspicuous. Shortly thereafter, Lucille shows up and wants to know where they two of them have been, but Ruth is too exhausted to...
(The entire section is 449 words.)
Chapter 9 Summary
Following their outdoor adventures, Sylvie and Ruth begin to receive numerous visitors at the house, starting with the sheriff. The sheriff is a nice man, who seems initially embarrassed to be bothering them. The sheriff’s visits are also supplemented by ones from ladies from town. Ruth recognizes the essentially Christian culture of Fingerbone and ascribes theses visits as being motivated by a need to do good. The women who visit come bearing food and often promise to have their husbands come and make some repairs around the house. They do their best to disguise their horror at the condition of the house. Numerous windows are missing window panes, and the parlor is filled with the newspapers and cans that Sylvie collects. The newspapers have attracted a number of rodents; the pantry is overrun with crickets; and birds have begun to take over the upstairs. To help with this problem, Sylvie brings home a stray cat who soon births two large litters. The cats go after the animals infesting the house, but often leave the remains of their conquests in the parlor, which only further concerns the visiting ladies.
Initially, like the sheriff, the ladies err on the far side of politeness, trying to be sociable despite the chaos of the house. Eventually, they become more direct about expressing their concerns for Ruth. Sylvie learns that the whole town knows about the boat and the train ride. Sylvie dismisses the events as a one-time occurrence and remarks that being around Ruth is much like having her sister back. Later, when Sylvie takes some chicken to Lucille, she returns with a clearer sense of the town’s concerns about her and Ruth. Sylvie seems genuinely worried that they will take Ruth from her and asks Ruth for reassurance that it won’t happen. That night, Sylvie stays up all night cleaning in an attempt to make a fresh start. She insists that Ruth go to school despite the girl’s protests. After a painful day at school (during which Lucille continues to ignore her), Ruth returns to the house to find the sheriff again talking to Sylvie. Sylvie makes some protests about splitting up the family, but the sheriff informs her that there will be a hearing about Ruth’s guardianship. When the sheriff realizes that Ruth has returned home, he sends her out of the room so that he can continue explaining the predicament to Sylvie.
(The entire section is 406 words.)
Chapter 10 Summary
Ruth imagines an alternate reality in which her mother did not commit suicide. In this version of her life, Helen and the girls visit with their grandmother and then drive back home. As the girls grow older, they notice their mother’s oddness and it brings them closer. Ruth knows that such a reality would deprive them of knowing how their mother struggled; how she came close to suicide and decided against it for their sake. In reality, Helen was distant and distracted the day she dropped the girls off on Sylvia’s porch. Looking back, Ruth can see in her mother the odd calm of someone who has resolved to end her life. Even at her young age, Ruth understands that some of what makes memories of her mother special to her is that fact that her mother is gone. In death, Helen has become transfigured in a way that wouldn’t have happened if she had stayed alive.
Sylvie senses that she is on the verge of losing Ruth and tries to present a new respectable front to the Fingerbone community. She starts a large bonfire in the back of the house and burns all of the newspapers and magazines she has collected that have been cluttering up the house. Feeling that the neighbors are watching their every move, Sylvie periodically remarks loudly about how well they are doing. She tells Ruth that she is going to give her a makeover—some new clothes, a new hairstyle—all of the things that will make them appear normal to Fingerbone. She also insists that Ruth will start going to church while Sylvie will participate in other town activities. When Sylvie heads inside for more stuff to burn, Ruth runs off into the orchard. Sylvie returns looking for Ruth, but does not dare yell for her out of fear that someone might overhear her. When Sylvie looks in the orchard, Ruth continues to dodge her. Suddenly, the sheriff shows up asking about Ruth. Sylvie tries to cover for her absence by saying she has gone to bed. When the sheriff insists on looking in on Ruth, Sylvie must admit that she has run off somewhere. At this point, Ruth comes out of the orchard, and the sheriff asks her why she was running around at night without a jacket. He then tries to get Ruth to come home with him, but Ruth refuses (even when he tries to entice her with his wife’s cooking). Eventually, the sheriff departs, vowing to return the next day.
(The entire section is 425 words.)
Chapter 11 Summary
When the sheriff leaves, Sylvie and Ruth realize the reality of the situation: Sylvie will lose Ruth and possibly they house as well. Unable to face that inevitability, they decide to burn the house down. The task proves more difficult than they first thought, because every time they start a fire it fizzles out because the house is so damp. Eventually, Ruth and Sylvie get a few fires going and flee, knowing that the fire will soon attract the attention of the rest of the town. Racing through the dark, Sylvie tells Ruth that they will jump on a train headed out of town before the fire is discovered. Unfortunately, they are too late and miss the last train leaving Fingerbone.
Sylvie knows that they have few options because the sheriff and other people in town will soon be looking for them. Realizing they have no other choice, she tells Ruth that they must walk over the long train trestle that crosses the lake. Terrified, Ruth complies, gingerly taking the slats two at a time. Ruth can barely see in front of her, and hears Sylvie more than she can see her. As she crosses the massive lake, Ruth realizes that this massive body of water is the final resting place of both her mother and her grandfather; she imagines a reversal in time in which her grandfather’s train comes back out of the water and is able to complete its journey.
A newspaper article states that Ruth and Sylvie fell into the same watery depths that claimed their relatives. As Sylvie had assumed, when whoever was following them arrived at the bridge, they assumed that the two women fell or jumped. In reality, Sylvie and Ruth hid on the other side of the lake until another outbound train passed by. They jumped aboard and became transients. They travel around the northwest, occasionally stopping to live in one place for awhile. Ruth even takes jobs periodically, until she feels that someone notices her difference. She isn’t exactly sure how she and Sylvie became so different, but is often keenly aware that they are. Occasionally, one of the trains they hopped on will pass through Fingerbone again, but they never got off there. They wonder if their house has been renovated or replaced with a newer house. Ruth often wonders about Lucille and where her life took her. She had always wanted to go to Boston, but when Sylvie looks for her name in a Boston phone book, none matched. Ruth knows that wherever Lucille is, she is forever haunted by the memory of Sylvie and...
(The entire section is 438 words.)