Housekeeping Summary

Orphaned sisters Ruth and Lucille have a tumultuous childhood. Their father abandons them at an early age, and their mother commits suicide by driving into a lake. Following their mother's death, Ruth and Lucille live with their grandmother, Sylvia Foster, in the small town of Fingerbone, Idaho. Five years later, Sylvia dies, and the sisters are passed from relative to relative.

  • First Sylvia's sisters-in-law Lily and Nona come to take care of the children. Overwhelmed, they call on Sylvie, the girls' aunt, who has been living as a drifter in the Pacific Northwest. When Sylvie arrives, Lily and Nona run away, leaving the girls in Sylvie's care.
  • Ruth and Lucille soon realize that Sylvie has very unconventional habits. She allows papers and leaves to little the house, and she eats canned food with her fingers. One day, she takes the couch outside to air out. When Sylvia writes a note to get Lucille out of school, the girls stop going entirely.
  • After a while, Lucille decides to live a conventional life. She goes back to school and pulls away from her sister, eventually moving in with her home-ec teacher. Ruth continues to live with Sylvie, despite growing concern in the community. When officials decide to remove Ruth from Sylvie's care, the two burn the house down and leave Fingerbone to live as drifters.

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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 girls’ aunt, and flee when she arrives.

One week later, Fingerbone has a massive flood, and the waters reach the Fisher house. The extended family lives on the second floor for several days. Conflicts surface, as Lucille desires order, answers, and a conventional life and Sylvie desires a transient and unconventional life.

Lucille is falsely accused of cheating on a test at school and stays home “sick” for one week. When Sylvie writes a note to the school explaining that Lucille always feels better by midmorning, Lucille and Ruth keep the letter and spend the next week “playing hooky” at the lake. One day, they see their aunt walk onto the bridge. They fear that she is going to commit suicide. Although reassured by their aunt that she is not going to kill herself, they...

(The entire section is 924 words.)