Do you agree with the sheriff that Ruth would be better off separated from Sylvie, in a "normal" household?
In Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, the sheriff has understandable concerns about Sylvie's ability to properly raise Ruth. While well-intentioned, Sylvie demonstrates many concerning traits that could make her an unfit guardian. Sylvie herself has chosen a life as a drifter, but Ruth and her sister Lucille are still young enough that they are impressionable and require a stable home environment. After being abandoned by their mother and great-aunts and the death of their grandmother, the girls fear being left alone. Despite her flaws and eccentricities, Sylvie is the only family member besides their grandmother who never turned her back on the girls. In this sense, she provides more stability for Ruth than any of her previous guardians.
The novel leaves it open to the reader's judgment whether it is a good thing or a bad thing that Ruth and Sylvie remained together. The sheriff's concerns may seem unfounded from Ruth's naive perspective, but from an outside perspective, Sylvie's behavior is concerning. She does not keep her home in a manner that is safe or suitable for children, hence the title of Housekeeping. While she attempts to clean up and remove some of the more unsanitary clutter in her home, her efforts are deemed too little, too late by the sheriff.
While Sylvie and Ruth share a deep emotional bond and a love of independence, there are co-dependent elements to their relationship. The story ends on a melancholic note with Ruth and Sylvie having escaped in order to avoid Ruth being taken into custody by the sheriff and placed in a different home. In order to run away without being pursued, Sylvie comes up with the plan to burn the house and convince everyone in town, including Lucille, that they drowned. The two become drifters, and while Ruth is somewhat optimistic about this life at the end of the novel, it remains to be seen whether this is a choice that will serve her well in her adult life.
Sylvie is spirited and carefree. Her love for Lucille and Ruth is obvious throughout the story, but Housekeeping raises the question of whether love is truly enough to keep a family together. Sylvie is certainly not an ideal guardian for Lucille, but she is what Ruth needs in a sense. However, the sheriff understands that Ruth is young and belongs in school where she can get an education and build a solid foundation for the rest of her life. From a psychological perspective, Ruth would likely be better off living with Sylvie in town with outside supervision to make sure that she goes to school and has all her needs met.