Loneliness bothers lots of people. I knew a woman once who was so lonely she married an old man with a limp and had four children in five years, and none of it helped at all. (p. 66)This is Sylvie, aunt of Ruth (the narrator) and Lucille, whose mother Helen abandons them at her mother’s house in the small lakeside town of Fingerbone (based, Bill said, on Sandpoint, Idaho, where Marilynne Robinson comes from), before driving away and, a little later, off a cliff into the lake. Sylvie is the pair’s fourth surrogate-parent, after the grandmother dies of old age and her sisters-in-law Nona and Lily prove incapable. The lake’s presence in the book is hard to characterise, but it is strong and threatening, if not actually malevolent. It is the final resting place not only of Helen, but of her father, whose train mysteriously came off the rails one dark night on the long bridge. I found this part of the story a bit unsatisfactory: how could a train come off the rails on a bridge and leave no trace of which side it had fallen? Perhaps I’ve been in Dundee too long: I wanted the bridge to collapse. Or for buckled rails, or something.
Sylvie is unused to houses, and her care of Ruth and Sylvie is, at best, idiosyncratic. Concerned neighbours bring food and disapproval:
The visitors glanced at the cans and papers as if they thought Sylvie must consider such things appropriate to a parlor. That was ridiculous. We had simply ceased to consider that a room a parlor, since, until we had attracted the attention of these ladies, no one ever came to call. Who would think of dusting or sweeping the cobwebs down in a room used for the storage of cans and newspapers – things utterly without value? Sylvie only kept them, I think, because she considered accumulation to be the essence of housekeeping. (p. 180)Gradually the two girls’ opinions polarise. Ruth is quiet, gangly, un-social, and more re-assured than otherwise by Sylvie’s odd behaviour, because she knows it means she’s comfortable and more likely to stick around. After a summer spent bunking off school together, ranging over the countryside around the lake, Lucille begins to pull away from her odd sister and odder aunt, and re-joins the local community, by moving out and adopting Home Economics teacher Miss Royce as a guardian. She rejects Sylvie’s trashy princess aesthetic precisely for its transience:
Lucille saw in everything its potential for invidious change. She wanted worsted mittens, brown oxfords, red rubber boots. Ruffles wilted, sequins fall, satin was impossible to clean. (p. 93)Doesn’t Lucille sound dull? There’s no way Bill Forsyth would want to make a film about her. And while she is off recovering her position on the social league table, Ruth’s loneliness becomes painful:
I ate lunch wherever I could find enough space to seat myself without appearing to wish to insinuate myself into a group, or a conversation, and I read while I ate. Lunches were terrible. I could scarcely swallow. It seemed as if I were trying to eat a peanut butter sandwich while hanging by the neck. It was a relief to go to Latin class, where I had a familiar place in a human group, alphabetically assigned. (p. 136)There is no spite here, only crippling self-awareness. Ruth comes closer to criticism of the un-social non-group of ‘transients’ (i.e. tramps) she finds herself falling towards, acknowledging that to do so is to court oblivion:
Like the dead, we could consider their histories complete, and we wondered only what had brought them to transiency, to drifting, since their lives as drifters were like pacings and broodings and skirmishings among ghosts who cannot pay their way across the Styx. (p. 179)The action which triggers the sympathy of the women who sit in the parlor wondering what to say is a trip Sylvie takes Ruth on one Monday, when she should have been in school. Sylvie steals a rowing boat from an angry man (‘“It must be his boat,” I suggested. Sylvie shrugged. “Or he might be just some sort of lunatic,” she said. “I’m certainly not going to go back and find out.” (p. 147)) and takes Ruth out on to the lake, to look at a collapsed house in a frosty valley that she has found in her wanderings. Sylvie abandons Ruth for hours, and then they stay out all night on the water in the boat, experiencing the rumble of a train from below the bridge, finally landing opposite Fingerbone and catching a boxcar back. The chapter shifts from the humour of stealing the boat to the cold despair of abandonment, to a meditation on abandoned homes and the displaced and the dead, who appear almost as ghosts to Ruth as she waits for Sylvie to return. It is possible that the ghosts of the dispossessed form a truer community than the Christians and officials of Fingerbone, but we’re left in no doubt that it will be a hard road Ruth has to travel to find out.