I read the book back when it was published in 1981 and knew it was extraordinary. I thought about it often over the years, but it was only lately when I spotted it on the shelf of audio books in the library that I decided it was time to revisit Fingerbone, Idaho, and the Foster, Stone, and Fisher women.
Hearing a book read is very different from reading the words on the page, no matter how skilled a reader you are or how carefully you read. When reading poetry, and this book is in my estimation poetry, it's almost as impossible to grasp it all as it is to grasp music or drama when it is read rather than performed.
When I finished listening I felt impelled to read the paper book again, and this time I was able to read it the way I can read the music of say, the beginning of "Rheingold." I can hear that music because I've heard it while looking at the written page. This kind of thing has happened now with Housekeeping.
Then I listened to the book a second time in a month. (Why not? It's already on my iPod and it was that or Moby-Dick.) Robinson's book stands up to this kind of abuse. It grows and flows and throws out things you missed the first and second and third times you went through it.
Everyone by now knows what the book is about. Two young girls are left at their grandmother's house in Fingerbone (read Sandpoint), Idaho, while their mother goes off to drown herself in the lake (read Pend Oreille.) Their grandfather drowned in the lake when the train he was riding went off a long wooden bridge near the town. The lake defines the town and in a sense defines the girls' family.
When their grandmother dies, the girls are cared for by their aunt, Sylvie. People in the town criticize her for being "a transient" - a hobo. The joke is of course that we are all transients, even those of us who don't ride the rails.
There is so much to think about as you read this book I could make a list of 100 major themes and symbols and metaphors and maybe another hundred minor ones. The lake, trains, the bridge, flooding, hair, food, boats, men (or the absence of them), snow, light, and again the lake.
But the most important symbol, concept, theme, and plot fulcrum is housekeeping. Keeping the house, rather than selling it or moving away from it or burning it down. Taking care of the house. Taking care of the family. Keeping the house in order. Keeping the house as a house and not as some other sort of shelter. Being inside the house looking out or being outside looking in.
It should be apparent that I'm writing this for folks who have already read the book. We are a kind of family, we readers of Housekeeping, and these concepts, symbols, themes remind us of what we have read and produce a sometimes sharp emotional response.
If you haven't read the book, you probably haven't made it this far in my review because you ran screaming out of your own house, either to buy a copy of the book or to escape from it. It's that kind of book.