Rarely has any novel, let alone a first novel, attracted such serious critical acclaim as did Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, which won the Ernest Hemingway First Novel Award for 1982 as well as the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Award. The short novel, which has generally been described as “lyrical” and “poetic,” incorporates a number of provocative issues, including American cultural and social myths and women’s issues. A reasonably solid film adaptation, directed by Bill Forsyth and starring Christine Lahti, appeared in 1987.
Robinson is in the fourth generation of her father’s family and the third of her mother’s to have lived in northern Idaho, where her great-grandfather homesteaded. Her father worked in the timber industry; her mother, whom she describes in a 1992 interview as “very verbal and witty,” often read to her and her older brother, and she claims to hear her mother’s voice in her own writing. Elsewhere Robinson has written that Idaho “has had the profoundest impact on my family, but we have not reciprocated.”
Her novel, Housekeeping, can in some ways be regarded as her reciprocation, though it is not a traditional example of “regional” writing. The lake in the novel is not named, but it does have the features of the deep Lake Pend Oreille, which, prior to the construction of dams on nearby streams in the 1950’s, occasionally flooded the town of Sandpoint (which is named Fingerbone in the novel). Camps of “hobos” were common there until late in the twentieth century near the railroad tracks that run through the town north-south and east-west, and the railroad bridge that figures so prominently in the novel may be a composite of two bridges that cross portions of Lake Pend Oreille. Moreover, a train wreck in 1959 may be the source for the one mentioned early in the novel. The only direct reference to Robinson’s home state, however, occurs when Ruth remembers her grandmother’s scanning the shores “to see how nearly the state of grace resembled the state of Idaho.”
(The entire section is 849 words.)