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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

More Than Mere Coincidence on a Wintry Day

In January 2005, I was new to the Northern Neck of Virginia, my husband in Indonesia with the U.N. for tsunami relief work, and I in a one-room cottage attached to a three-car garage filled with our crated furniture and possessions, including my library. Outside was the season's first snow, which I had not experienced for the past five years while living in Colombia and Peru. I had two friends in the Northern Neck, but both were in Florida. One daughter was studying in the U.K., the other stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Such weary woe, though at last (por fin)The Atlantic was arriving, forwarded from Embassy Lima. And that winter's day, in an earlier issue, I read about a writer named Marilynne Robinson; that twenty-four years earlier in 1980, Farrar Strass Giroux had published her novel, Housekeeping. Now this fine publisher was announcing Robinson's second novel, Gilead. In 1980 I had been living in a tiny German village, about to begin a European master's program. That is why you have not heard of Robinson, I told myself!


That January day enough snow had melted for the car to make it up the steep gravel driveway. I had been told the library in Heathsville was a comfortable place to read and write; and as I walked in, I noticed a wall of books with a "for sale" sign. A bibliophile, I headed there first, hoping to find a book I had lost or one someone had not returned or a work I could add to my collection. I looked at hardcovers first. The spine of a book jacket with the title in overly large print jumped out at me. HOUSEKEEPING/Marilynne Robinson, a second edition from 1980, the cover a bit ragged but the book itself unmarked. The original price, $10.95, now for $1.00. I left the library with the book, a library card, and a strong sense of a meaningful coincidence.


The cottage had a hide-a-bed sofa with a good backrest. That early afternoon I opened the bed and then the novel. "My name is Ruth," a four-word opening with resonance of Herman Melville's "Call me Ishmael." (Only later when I taught a course on Robinson, did I learn that at nine she read Moby Dick. This still boggles my mind.) That January day I read until I had to turn on lights, reading slowly the 219 pages, following Doris Lessing's advice on the back cover. The short testimonials there are from three writers I deeply admire.

Next week: Questions students posed to me about Housekeeping and my answers.


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