In Housekeeping, a very good case can be made to consider either Ruth or Sylvie the protagonist. Because the story belongs to Ruth, as the narrator, it seems most logical to see her as the protagonist. The reader slowly sees her grow and change, as she skillfully tells us of the experiences she and her sister, Lucille, endured before Sylvie came to stay with them. Because she wants a normal family, or something close to it, and the stability that it implies, she is heavily invested in accepting Sylvie in the parental role. Even when it becomes clear that this is not what Sylvie is used to or particularly well suited to, Ruth invests more energy in this increasingly fragile family image. After Lucille opts to save herself by moving in with the other family, Ruth must accept what she had known for a while was inevitable. In these regards, as the story follows her process of maturing, Ruth seems to be the protagonist.
An equally convincing argument can be made for Sylvie as the protagonist. In that regard, Ruth is still steering the action, but she has placed herself in the role of narrator as writer rather than simply recalling her memories of those days. She is constructing the characters: Sylvie, in particular, but also to some extent her sister and herself. Because their aunt has been a stranger to them, the reader gets to know Sylvie along with the girls. Because they are children and have had a very unstable life already, they do not pick up on a lot of cues that the adult Ruth as narrator makes rather obvious to the reader. Sylvie is presented as a flawed and fragile person. Her unsuitability to be anyone’s mother figure stems not from unwillingness but from inability to assume conventionally responsible behavior. The adult Ruth has developed enough compassion to represent this complex character as sympathetic, and thus it seems that the author is encouraging us to focus on Sylvie.