Photography: Danny Wilcox Frazier/Redux
Marilynne Robinson says Housekeeping, though based in Idaho, should not be read to determine what she thinks of the gem state.
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Idaho has spawned world-class skiers, prize-winning rodeo cowboys and inspirational characters as wildly diverse as Jeremiah Johnson and Napoleon Dynamite. That rugged Ernest Hemingway would wind up here in Idaho, with its fierce beauty and fly-fishing, makes perfect sense.
But what may be the best novel to come out of the state—ever—is not about grizzled fur trappers or good-hearted geeks. It is the 1980 novel Housekeeping, written by Idaho native Marilynne Robinson and recently named one of the best novels written in the U.S. in the past 25 years. Robinson left Idaho when she went east to college and she never really came back. But in France, while working on her dissertation, she began writing her first novel, placed in Idaho in the fictional town of Fingerbone, which many read as Sandpoint, the northern city by the lake where she grew up.
It is the moving story of two young girls being raised by a succession of adult relatives after their mother commits suicide. They wind up in the care of a clearly unstable aunt, a good-natured transient with tales of trains she’s ridden and a habit of collecting cans. As the girls grow up, outsiders in this small town, they start skipping school to explore and fish in the mountain lake that dominates their environment. While it is their playground, it is also a dark and terrible presence, having been the final resting place for too many people, including their mother.
That book earned Robinson great reviews and some prizes and was made into a film starring Christine Lahti in 1988. But fans of Robinson’s graceful writing would have to wait nearly 25 years for another book of fiction from her. In the meantime, she wrote two books of non-fiction, including Son of Adam, in which she discussed religious theory, praised John Calvin and the Puritans and revealed her own deep interest in faith. (She has been a deacon in her Congregational Church.) When at long last her second work of fiction, Gilead, was printed in 2004, it was almost universally praised. The story is about a third-generation preacher writing down his life story for the young son he will not live to see grow up. He ranges far and wide, from the joys of late love to the sometimes-curse of the food brought to his house by parishioners. But a central issue is the story of his own father’s conflict with his grandfather. The grandfather was an ardent abolitionist and his son a pacifist.
What is surprising is that Robinson manages to engage readers with the same lovely writing and compelling storytelling in what is essentially an inner dialogue of a religious man, surely a daunting task for any writer in this modern world. She also wanted to make the point, she has said, about taking a stand (against slavery, in this case) and sticking to it. And she succeeded magnificently, earning the Pulitzer Prize for her novel in 2005.
In 2006, the New York Times Book Review took a survey of current famous writers, asking them to name the best book of the last 25 years, and Housekeeping received multiple votes.
Since 1989, Robinson has lived in Iowa City, Iowa, teaching at the University of Iowa’s prestigious Writers’ Workshop. She has clearly found her niche there and can reportedly be seen walking her small dog and reading a book at the same time in her neighborhood. And while she has said she is incapable of small talk and is awkward in those situations, she returned to Sandpoint last May for “An Afternoon with Marilynne Robinson,” where she spoke, answered questions and signed books. For this article, she answered questions via e-mail from Iowa. >>>