Marilynne Robinson's 'Housekeeping' and upcoming visit inspire community reading

Sunday, March 2, 2014


AP File Photo

Author Marilynne Robinson’s first novel “Housekeeping” was chosen as this year’s Read Across Lawrence book, and the author will be in Lawrence on Thursday to speak at Plymouth Congregational Church, 925 Vermont St.

Within a couple of days of the Read Across Lawrence kickoff, 650 copies of Marilynne Robinson’s “Housekeeping” flew out of Lawrence Public Library and Kansas University libraries and spread throughout the community.

“People are most inspired when the author is able to come,” says Kathleen Morgan, library foundation director.

Unlike past years’ selections, library staff had a shorter time frame to choose a community read, this year being the first time Read Across Lawrence was held during February. They had just wrapped up discussion on Timothy Egan’s “The Worst Hard Time” in September.

The library internal group looked to The Big Read — a program that aims to encourage reading by awarding grants to facilitate community book reads — for inspiration. “Housekeeping” was one of the choices listed, and they happened to know a Lawrence resident with a connection to Pulitzer Prize-winning Robinson. They sent an invitation to Iowa where she currently lives, she accepted, and things quickly fell into place.

“It was exciting because she’s a big deal,” Morgan says. “The planets aligned for us.”

“Housekeeping” is about loss, hope, love and family ties as it follows the narrative of Ruthie and her younger sister, Lucille, raised in the small, imaginary town of Fingerbone, Idaho. The train in the remote town of Fingerbone travels through mountains and across a lake that claimed the life of their grandfather by accident and their mother by suicide.

The sisters have had a haphazard upbringing, first under the care of their competent grandmother, then their comical aunts and finally their eccentric boxcar drifting Aunt Sylvie, who returns to Fingerbone to assume care of her two nieces.

Through lyrical and precise language, Robinson illustrates a haunting portrayal of the Northwest landscape, in which she was raised. It’s appropriate, she says, for a Lawrence reading.

“I suppose because of my own history I am drawn to places that have that particular American atmosphere of frontier hovering about them,” Robinson says. “And the frontier was broad and deep, and is still a palpable presence in both Idaho and Kansas.”

Robinson uses great detail drawing out the setting, the book’s genesis from a series of metaphors she had been working on while pursuing her Ph.D. in English literature.

“It was always important to my family that we lived in a very particular place,” she says. “This was a gift to me. I loved the experience of putting it in words. But I did that, and could do it, only because my attention had been continuously drawn to it.”

But be careful not to draw any conclusions about the ties from her work to her personal life, even if you might spot some parallels.

“I can’t really tell where my fiction ends and I begin,” Robinson says. “But it is never autobiographical. If this sounds like a riddle, it puzzles me, too.”

“Housekeeping” was published in 1980, nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for best first novel, not to mention high praises from New York Times’ Anatole Broyard, among other reviewers. Her second novel, “Gilead,” published 24 years later, won a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. Her third, “Home,” published in 2008, won an Orange Prize for fiction.

Robinson doesn’t feel the need to rush into her writing, which has served her very well.

“I might try something out, a few pages, and decide I didn’t want to live with that voice, or that world,” she says. “I have a novel in my mind or I don’t. I’ve never been tempted to force the issue.”

Her forthcoming novel, “Lila,” takes a minor character from two of her former fiction novels and explores the full life readers have yet to be exposed to.

“Quiet lives are the most intense,” Robinson says.

After the reading and book signing event at 7 p.m. Thursday at Plymouth Congregational Church, 925 Vermont St., Robinson will be signing books, and attendees will have an opportunity to speak with her directly. The program is free and open to the public.

The final book discussion, also open to the community, has changed its date to 4 p.m. on March 13, at Pioneer Ridge-Assisted Living (4851 Harvard Road).

One of the biggest notes the library staff made when selecting the book was the level of complexity Lawrence readers would face. There are many layers, says event coordinator Polli Kenn, and much to discuss.

During the community discussions, readers have drawn attention to feminism and whether the free-spirited Aunt Sylvie would have been as disturbing to people if she were a man. They’ve spoken on family dynamics, questioning where the line is between a quirky family member and someone who is actually quite damaged. Some even found parallels between protagonist Ruthie and transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau.

“Lawrence is the type of community that’s up for that challenge,” says Morgan, the library’s foundation director. “Not all communities can handle a book like this. It’s like you read a paragraph and there is so much to unpack.”