Thursday, December 22, 2005


by Marilynne Robinson

Ruth Stone and her sister Lucille are left with their grandmother, Sylvia, by their mother, Helen, who drives a borrowed car off a cliff and into the same lake where Helen’s father died when the train on which he worked slid off the bridge (“like an otter sliding off a rock”). When Sylvia dies, her sisters-in-law come to the small town in Idaho to take care of the girls, but being old maids the girls scare them and finally they locate Sylvie, Sylvia’s youngest daughter, to come home and take care off Ruth and Lucille. Lucille runs off because Sylvie is too weird for her, but Ruth and Sylvie are much alike. Life becomes more and more haphazard but Ruth takes to it. They acquire cats (a cat followed by two litters, totaling 12 or 13), piles of newspapers, a collection of tin cans; they eat little, Ruth doesn’t go to school. Then the neighbors grow concerned and take action. Published in 1980, this is considered one of the best books of the 20th Century and certainly it is one of the most literary and lyrical that I have read. It deals with impermanence, but it also deals with loss and value, of the irrational faith place in the material, so that in the end, when the material has vanished in a spiral of ashes, the spirit is released. I was struck by the heavy use of narrative here, much that feels “told” rather than shown, and the limited use of dialogue. Ruth really is “telling” her story, and intersperses the tale with a version of her cosmology, in large part learned from Sylvie. If The Moviegoer reminded me of Richard Yates, this brought Wallace Stegner to mind.

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