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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

Marilynne Robinson Writes Again

Current issues of The Atlantic, Commonweal, and The New Yorker have articles on Robinson’s latest book, a non-fiction work on Genesis. 

Marilynne Robinson

Call me Ms. Antiquated: I still subscribe to fine magazines and periodicals like the London Review of Books. But I’ve not forgotten the early winter of 2005, when three months of mail arrived from Lima, Peru, Mike’s last State Department posting. My happiness then, on a bitterly cold day, was seeing back issues of The Atlantic. This is when I first heard about the writer, Marilynn Robinson.

At the time I was alone in a tiny cottage in the Northern Neck of Virginia, husband Mike in Indonesia for U.N. work after the devastating late December 2004 Tsunami. Given our household goods were in State Department storage, and I was without my library, I unwisely accepted an assignment with Americas (OAS magazine) for an article on a Peruvian sculptor, Carlos Runcie Tanaka. 

Carlos Runcie Tanaka

A terrible idea because language was as frozen in me as the ice-covered ground outside the cottage. Yet I had three issues of The Atlantic. That’s when I read about Marilynn Robinson’s new novel, which after her two-decade-plus absence from fiction, was big literary news. Why had I not heard of this writer and her Pen-Hemingway award-winning novel, Housekeeping? I suppose because I had been in West Germany from 1980-83 and read only the International Herald. 

That January day in 2005, I learned Robinson’s second novel had been published, an epistolary work called Gilead. Given I believe ardently in life’s Three C’s, I was not surprised what happened that same day. I decided to visit the Northumberland Library in Heathsville. What did I see when I walked in? A small section of used books for sale. What was there in hardcover, still wearing its book jacket? Housekeeping! 

I paid one dollar for it, filled out a form for a library card, then returned to the cottage. I opened the sofa bed and began reading. When early darkness came, I turned on lights, finished the novel, then turned to the first page and began again, reading slowly, hearing each word of this writer’s lyrical prose.  I thank Marilynn Robinson for reopening a closed gate, which allowed me to write the article on Carlos and one on adopting a roadway for my father, which won more than one writing award. What are the fragments for except to be rejoined, which is what Carlos in Lima did with shards of pottery.


Robinson’s narrator, Ruth, asks: “What Are All These Fragments For, If Not to Be Knit Up Finally?”

The first four words of Housekeeping are, “My name is Ruth.” She asks this question years after she leaves Fishbone, a remote Northwestern town, located on a mysterious, glacial lake.  I should say a holy trinity of lakes, and a town with floods out of Genesis, not to mention a passenger train sliding off the town’s bridge into the lake like a weasel, leaving behind a mystery, like so much in Robinson’s first novel.  It is one to read multiple times, as is her quartet: Gilead, Home, Lila, and Jack. 

Ilona, my film-savvy webmaster, says the movie of Housekeeping is not one to see.  But I await a series, something as fine as Brideshead Revisited, of Robinson’s characters in Gilead, Iowa, and other locations from her literary quartet.


Next week: Reflections on a March 20th Marilynn Robinson podcast from New York City

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