Fingerbone, the cold, damp setting of Housekeeping, was the site of a spectacular train derailment years ago, when Ruth and Lucille’s grandfather, Edmund Foster, and his Fireball train plunged off the bridge and sank into the lake. An awareness of the lake and the train’s presence beneath its surface permeates the entire novel. After the accident, other widows left Fingerbone, but the girls’ grandmother remained. As an adult reminiscing about her childhood and the women in her family, Ruth narrates the story in an unusual meditative style; the plot is driven less by character action than by Ruth’s active imagination and emotions. Although it deals with serious subject matter, Housekeeping is a comic novel, and Aunt Sylvie is one of the most memorable characters in contemporary literature.
The action of the story begins when Ruth and Lucille’s mother, Helen, uproots her daughters from their apartment in Seattle, abandons them on their grandmother’s porch, and drives her borrowed car over a cliff into the deepest part of the lake. The girls remain under their grandmother’s care for five years. When she dies, her persnickety sisters-in-law, Lily and Nona, move into the old house to watch over the girls. Missing their familiar surroundings in Spokane’s Hartwick Hotel, the old women conspire to persuade Helen’s sister, Sylvie, to take over rearing the girls. Sylvie, a transient, has been away from Fingerbone for sixteen years and has acquired strange habits, such as sleeping on park benches, eating her supper in the dark, and listening for the freight trains that she once rode. Upon Sylvie’s arrival, Lily and Nona flee Fingerbone.
Lucille becomes lonely...
(The entire section is 699 words.)