We just finished bluebonnet season and this year was one of the best.
This lovely field is just a block from our home.
The great Tomie de Paola has two perfect picture books that tell the legends of two Texas wildflowers–
but we also love this book of wildflower legends by our fellow Houstonian, Cherie Foster Colburn, called Bloomin’ Tales: Legends of Seven Favorite Texas Wildflowers. This book tells a slightly different bluebonnet legend, from the perspective of the early settlers rather than the Comanche Indians in de Paola’s book. However, both stories involve drought, fire, and rain. In both cases, the bluebonnets appear when the rains come at the end of a long drought. In our own city, we’ve had a drought for several years and almost no bluebonnets. This year we had plentiful spring rains and a gorgeous crop of wildflowers.
It’s fun for the kids to see books that represent seasons as we experience them here. So many picture books are set in the Northeast or Midwest and don’t reflect our flora or climate. “Winter means ice skating on the pond in the park… etc.” So we jump at those that do.
Unfortunately, I am extremely allergic to wildflowers, especially bluebonnets. So the day that bluebonnet pictures start appearing in my own and my friends’ Facebook feeds, I begin madly housecleaning in a mostly vain attempt to keep the pollen at bay–at least in my own house! I just so happened at that same time this spring to be reading a book for my book club called Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson. The book was published in 1980.
Housekeeping is the story of two sisters’ lonely childhood in the in a tiny town in Idaho. The girls’ town, their house, and their memories are haunted by the large lake next to town where their grandfather drowned long ago in a terrific train accident and where their mother committed suicide by driving her car into the lake, shortly after depositing the little girls on the front porch of her mother’s home.
This is the kind of book that I probably would not have finished if it weren’t for the book club. It was slow-moving, with little dialogue, and initially I was impatient with it. Practically every page contained images of drowning, loss, or grief. I was starting to feel pretty depressed!
After their mother’s suicide, the girls live with their grandmother until she dies. Then some maiden aunts come to the house to care for the girls, and then finally their mother’s younger sister Sylvie comes home and becomes the girls’ caretaker.
Sylvie has been living the life of a transient–hopping trains all across the country. She doesn’t seem to know how to keep house at all, and the girls’ living condition deteriorates to really appalling conditions. After awhile, one of the girls, Lucille, can’t stand it anymore and moves in with one of her friends who has a “normal” family. But strangely, Sylvie has managed to create a sense of belonging for the other girl, Ruth, and the two of them are happy. When outside forces threaten their happiness, they make a dramatic decision together. I think this is the meaning of the title: keeping house means more than cleaning, it means creating a space for love.
As soon as I read the last word of the book, I flipped back to page 1 and started reading it again. I realized I had missed so much the first time around. The character’s name Ruth should have been my first clue that the book dealt with some serious religious themes. Ruth is the daughter who stays, who loves.
One of the themes of the book is how loss affects memory. Little details that would otherwise have been forgotten become imprinted into the mind forever because they occurred at the time of tragedy.
Everything that falls upon the eye is apparition, a sheet dropped over the world’s true workings. The nerves and the brain are tricked, and one is left with dreams that these specters loose their hands from ours and walk away, the curve of the back and the swing of the coat so familiar as to imply that they should be permanent fixtures of the world, when in fact nothing is more perishable.
I recommend a slow reading of this book, and I hope to reread it someday. After my first reading, I was surprised to learn that Housekeeping shows up on many “100 Best Books of the 20th Century”-type lists. A few weeks later, having thought about it more and revisited many passages, I’m not surprised at all.
The author Marilynne Robinson is a Christian, and apparently preaches occasionally in her Congregationalist church. You can get a sense of what her sermons might be like from this passage:
To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know anything so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing–the world will be made whole.
Joining with the well-read Jessica @ Housewifespice for more Wednesday book talk.