FOR THE ARTS
FOR THE ARTS
A great nation
deserves great art.
The National Endowment for the Arts is a public agency dedicated to supporting
excellence in the arts — both new and established — bringing the arts to all Americans,
and providing leadership in arts education. Established by Congress in 1965 as an
independent agency of the federal government, the Endowment is the nation's largest
annual funder of the arts, bringing great art to all 50 states, including rural areas, inner
cities, and military bases.
The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support
for the nations 122,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institutes mission is to create
strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas. The Institute
works at the national level and in coordination with state and local organizations to
sustain heritage, culture, and knowledge; enhance learning and innovation; and support
Arts Midwest connects people throughout the Midwest and the world to meaningful arts
opportunities, sharing creativity, knowledge, and understanding across boundaries. Based
in Minneapolis, Arts Midwest connects the arts to audiences throughout the nine-state
region of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Ohio, South
Dakota, and Wisconsin. One of six non-profit regional arts organizations in the United
States, Arts Midwest's history spans more than 25 years.
Additional support for The Big Read has also been provided by the W.K. Kellogg
National Endowment for the Arts
1 100 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW.
Washington, DC 20506-0001
Robinson, Marilynne. Housekeeping. 1981. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004.
Smalley, Eugene V. History of the Northern Pacific Railroad. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1883.
Flynn, Sarah, Thomas King, and Adam O'Connor Rodriguez. "A Conversation with Marilynne Robinson,
April 24, 2006 "/Willow Springs 58: Fall 2006. willowsprings.ewu.edu
David Kipen, NEA Director of Literature, National Reading Initiatives
Sarah Bainter Cunningham, PhD, NEA Director of Arts Education
Writer: Deborah Galyan for the National Endowment for the Arts, with a preface by Dana Gioia
Series Editor: Molly Thomas-Hicks for the National Endowment for the Arts
Graphic Design: Fletcher Design/Washington DC
Cover Portrait: John Sherffius for The Big Read. Page iv: Photo by Grant Faint, courtesy of Getty Images;
book cover courtesy of Picador. Page 1: Caricature of Dana Gioia by John Sherffius. Inside back cover:
© Nancy Crampton.
Table of Contents
Suggested Teaching Schedule 2
Lesson One: Biography 4
Lesson Two: Culture and History 5
Lesson Three: Narrative and Point of View 6
Lesson Four: Characters 7
Lesson Five: Figurative Language 8
Lesson Six: Symbols 9
Lesson Seven: Character Development 10
Lesson Eight: The Plot Unfolds 11
Lesson Nine: Themes of the Novel 12
Lesson Ten: What Makes a Book Great? 13
Essay Topics 14
Capstone Projects 15
Handout One: Construction of the
Sandpoint Railroad Bridge 16
Handout Two: First-Person Narration in Housekeeping 17
Handout Three: Family Dynamics in Housekeeping 18
Teaching Resources 19
NCTE Standards 20
Having a sister or a
friend is like sitting
at night in a lighted
house. Those outside
can watch you if they
want, but you need
not see them."
— from Housekeeping
THE BIG READ
National Endowment for the Arts
Welcome to The Big Read, a major initiative from the National
Endowment for the Arts designed to revitalize the role of literary reading
in American culture. The Big Read hopes to unite communities through
great literature, as well as inspire students to become life-long readers.
This Big Read Teacher's Guide contains ten lessons to lead you through
Marilynne Robinson's classic novel, Housekeeping. Each lesson has four
sections: a focus topic, discussion activities, writing exercises, and
homework assignments. In addition, we have provided capstone projects
and suggested essay topics, as well as handouts with more background
information about the novel, the historical period, and the author.
All lessons dovetail with the state language arts standards required in the
The Big Read teaching materials also include a CD. Packed with interviews,
commentaries, and excerpts from the book, The Big Read CD presents
firsthand accounts of why Housekeeping remains so compelling more than
a quarter-century after its initial publication. Some of America's most
celebrated writers, scholars, and actors have volunteered their time to
make Big Read CDs exciting additions to the classroom.
Finally, The Big Read Reader's Guide deepens your exploration with
interviews, booklists, timelines, and historical information. We hope
this guide and syllabus allow you to have fun with your students while
introducing them to the work of a great American author.
From the NEA, we wish you an exciting and productive school year.
Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts
National Endowment for the Arts THE BIG READ • |
Activities: Listen to The Big Read CD. Read
the biography (pp. 5-6) and the interview
excerpt (pp. 10-11) in the Housekeeping
Reader's Guide. Collectively review the key
points of Robinson's biography. Write about a
childhood place of mystery and discovery.
Homework: Read Chapter I (pp. 3-28).*
FOCUS: Culture and History
Activities: Read and discuss Handout One.
Discuss the role of women in the 1950s and
how women are portrayed in the novel's
first chapter. Write a short essay about a
historical artifact or event that is interwoven
with your family history.
Homework: Read Chapters 2 and 3
FOCUS: Narrative and Point of View
Activities: Read and discuss Handout Two.
Read aloud and discuss an excerpt of the
ice-skating scene in Chapter 2. Write a
description of the narrator.
Homework: Read Chapter 4 (pp. 60-75).
Activities: Discuss the flood scene in Chapter
4. Discuss and write about characters and the
concept of family traits.
Homework: Read Chapter 5 (pp. 76-94).
FOCUS: Figurative Language
Activities: Examine the extended metaphor
(Fingerbone "relics") on p. 73. Ask the
students to discuss what is being compared.
Write a paragraph using figurative language to
describe a complex emotion.
Homework: Read Chapter 6 (pp. 95-108).
* Page numbers refer to the Picador 2004 edition of Housekeeping.
2 * THE BIG READ
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Activities: Read aloud the scene depicting
Sylvie on the bridge (pp. 80-84), and the
section where Ruth and Lucille stop going
to school and spend time at the bridge
(pp. 95-97). Write about why and how the
bridge functions as a symbol in the novel.
Homework: Read Chapter 7 (pp. 109-142).
FOCUS: Character Development
Activities: Read and discuss Handout Three.
Analyze and discuss the dynamics of Sylvie,
Ruth, and Lucille's household. Write letters in
Ruth and Lucille's voices.
Homework: Read Chapter 8 (pp. 143-175).
FOCUS: The Plot Unfolds
Activities: Use the filmmaking technique of
storyboarding to map the plot of the first
Homework: Read Chapter 9 (pp. 176-191).
FOCUS: Themes of the Novel
Activities: Discuss, analyze, and write about
the central theme of housekeeping.
Homework: Read Chapters 10 and II
FOCUS: What Makes a Book Great?
Activities: Explore the qualities of a great
novel. Write essays examining personal
reactions to the novel.
Homework: Select an essay topic and write a
National Endowment for the Arts THE BIG READ • 3
Examining an author's life can inform and expand the reader's
understanding of a novel. Biographical criticism is the practice of analyzing
a literary work through the lens of an author's experience. In this lesson,
explore the author's life to understand the novel more fully.
A primordial landscape of mountains and cold, glacial waters made an
indelible impression on Marilynne Robinson, who grew up in Sandpoint,
Idaho, in the 1940s. Sandpoint 's large and majestic Lake Pend Oreille
was a source of childhood fascination and family tragedy for Robinson,
whose maternal uncle drowned in its waters before she was born. As an
undergraduate she studied American literature and religion at Pembroke
College (Brown University). On a dare from her roommate, Robinson
took a writing workshop with the postmodernist writer John Hawkes,
who encouraged her to have confidence in the ornate language, complex
sentences, and extended metaphors that characterize her writing style. She
has often said that Housekeeping (1980) began as a collection of metaphors.
Eventually, the lake of her childhood became a powerful central image in
Listen to The Big Read CD. Read the Reader's Guide biography of Robinson
(pp. 5-6) and the interview excerpt (pp. 10-11). Students should take notes.
Collectively review the key points of Robinson's biography. Ask students to share
any questions or thoughts they will carry with them as they begin to read.
In the Reader's Guide interview, Robinson explains that many of the dramatic
moments of her childhood involved the Idaho landscape, particularly the lake.
"It's like the local spirit of the place," she explains, "and we spent a lot of time just
hovering on the edges of it, looking at it and dipping into it." Ask the students to
recall a place of discovery, experimentation, mystery, or wonder from their own
childhoods, and to write a short essay describing this place and the thoughts and
feelings it evokes. Some useful prompts might include: What drew you to this
place? What about it intrigued, scared, or thrilled you? What did you learn there,
and what remains a mystery?
Read Chapter I (pp. 3-28). Students should list the characters they encounter,
and return to class prepared to discuss the key events of Ruth's family history,
described in Chapter I.
4 • THE BIG READ
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Cultural and historical contexts give birth to the dilemmas and themes at
the center of the novel. Studying these contexts and appreciating intricate
details of the time and place help readers understand the motivations of the
Set in the 1950s, Housekeeping contains no references to specific years or
significant national events. The vagueness of time and lack of news from
the larger world contribute to the novel's powerful sense of place: the
northern Idaho wilderness. The fictional town of Fingerbone has much in
common with Robinson s childhood home of Sandpoint, Idaho, including
a spectacular railway bridge suspended over a broad expanse of cold water.
The building of railroads brought new economic opportunities and waves of
job-seeking immigrants to remote settlements in the Northwest and carried
away the enormous timber harvests of the northern forests. In the novel, the
presence of hoboes and transients suggests that the 1930s Dust Bowl era is
not long in the past, even as Lucille studies hairstyles and chats with older
girls over Cokes at the drug store, quintessential teen rituals of the 1950s.
Read and discuss Handout One: Construction of the Sandpoint Railroad Bridge.
As a class, discuss the role of women during the 1950s. Does the first chapter
portray women differently than the stereotype? If so, how?
Ruth's and Lucille's history is interwoven with the history of American railroads:
References to their grandfather's railroad job, the spectacular train disaster, and
Aunt Sylvie's boxcar travels are embedded in the larger family story. Ask each
student to write a short essay about a historic artifact or event that is entwined
with his or her family story. How do the artifacts or events they have chosen
connect their family histories to the larger events of history?
Read Chapters 2 and 3 (pp. 29-59). Answer these questions in writing: What is
life like for Ruthie and Lucille after the arrival of Lily and Nona? Why do Lily and
Nona decide to compose a letter to Sylvie? Why do the girls follow Sylvie on her
National Endowment for the Arts
THE BIG READ ■ 5
The narrator tells the story, with a specific perspective informed by his or
her beliefs and experiences. Narrators can be major or minor characters,
or exist outside the story altogether. The narrator weaves her or his point
of view, including ignorance and bias, into telling the tale. A first-person
narrator participates in the events of the novel, using "I." A distanced
narrator, often not a character, is removed from the action of the story
and uses the third-person (he, she, and they). The distanced narrator may
be omniscient, able to read the minds of all the characters, or limited,
describing only certain characters' thoughts and feelings. Ultimately, the
type of narrator determines the point of view from which the story is told.
Housekeeping is narrated in the first person by Ruth, who announces
her identity, and, in a sense, her sole authority over the story, in the first
sentence of the novel: My name is Ruth. She narrates the story of her
unsteady childhood in an extended flashback. Throughout the narrative,
she refers to herself by her childhood nickname, "Ruthie." The story is told
from an adult point of view but offers no hint of Ruth s adult life until late
in the book, when she reveals that she is a drifter who returns now and
then to her childhood home but sees only what is visible of it from a boxcar.
Read and discuss Handout Two: First-person Narration in Housekeeping. Read
aloud the ice-skating scene in Chapter 2. Begin on page 33: "For some reason the
lake was a source of particular pleasure. . ." and end on page 35 with the paragraph
that begins "If every house in Fingerbone were to fall before our eyes."
Ei Writing Exercise
Pretending that you have only the brief fragment of narrative discussed in the
section above from which to work, write a description of the narrator. What can
you know about her from the sights and sounds she describes? What holds her
attention? What are her feelings about the lake, the town, and life in general? Each
specific detail, word choice, or repetition constitutes a clue. (If you prefer, students
can work in small groups.)
Read Chapter 4 (pp. 60-75). Why does Sylvie's behavior during the flood make
Ruthie and Lucille anxious? What is Lucille's complaint during the flood? What is
6 • THE BIG READ
National Endowment for the Arts
The central character in a work of literature is called the protagonist.
The protagonist usually initiates the main action of the story and often
overcomes a flaw, such as weakness or ignorance, to achieve a new
understanding by the work's end. A protagonist who acts with great
honor or courage may be called a hero. An antihero is a protagonist
lacking these qualities. Instead of being dignified, brave, idealistic, or
purposeful, the antihero may be cowardly, self-interested, or weak. The
protagonist s journey is enriched by encounters with characters who hold
differing beliefs. One such character type, a foil, has traits that contrast
with the protagonist s and highlight important features of the main
character's personality. The most important foil, the antagonist, opposes the
protagonist, barring or complicating his or her success.
The characters in Housekeeping share a house and a familial legacy. The
dynamics of character interaction are especially rich when characters share
family traits and sometimes act out intergenerational dramas. Although
Ruthie is clearly the novel's protagonist, Lucille is often the instigator of
action. She also serves as Ruthie's antagonist in later scenes, challenging her
to reject Sylvie and "improve" herself. "Families are a sorrow, and that's the
truth," one of the ladies of Fingerbone says (p. 186). For Ruthie, the truth
and sorrow of her family is splintered across several generations.
Discuss the flood scene in Chapter 4. What do we learn about Ruthie, Lucille,
and Sylvie? How does the family history shape the girls' expectations and
suspicions about Sylvie? Read aloud and discuss the section on p. 74 beginning:
"The restoration of the town was. . ." until the end of page 75. Discuss the
concept of family patterns.
Ruthie says, "Then, too, for whatever reasons, our whole family was standoffish.
This was the fairest description of our best qualities, and the kindest description
of our worst faults" (p. 74). Have students write several paragraphs analyzing
this passage. Given the family history, what are some reasons why they might be
"standoffish"? How can a character flaw also be a strength?
Read Chapter 5 (pp. 76-94). What is Sylvie doing when they encounter her at
the shore? How do the girls react to what they've seen? How does Sylvie's
housekeeping transform the house?
National Endowment for the Arts
THE BIG READ • 7
Writers use figurative language such as imagery, similes, and metaphors
to help the reader visualize and experience events and emotions in a story.
Imagery — a word or phrase that refers to sensory experience (sight, sound,
smell, touch, or taste) — helps create a physical experience for the reader and
adds immediacy to literary language.
Some figurative language asks us to stretch our imaginations, finding
the likeness in seemingly unrelated things. Simile is a comparison of two
things that initially seem quite different but are shown to have significant
resemblance. Similes employ connective words, usually "like," "as," "than,"
or a verb such as "resembles." A metaphor is a statement that one thing is
something else that, in a literal sense, it is not. By asserting that a thing is
something else, a metaphor creates a close association that underscores an
important similarity between these two things.
Robinson's use of figurative language in Housekeeping is extensive and
elemental. The language Ruth uses to describe her experiences is layered
with images, similes, and metaphors that reveal her unique way of
perceiving the world.
Sometimes authors develop, or extend, a metaphor beyond one sentence.
Examine the extended metaphor (Fingerbone "relics") on p. 73. Ask the students
to discuss what is being compared. What is the source of the imagery Ruth uses?
Why would she choose this metaphor to describe Fingerbone after the flood?
What does Ruth mean by the statement, "Every spirit passing through the world
fingers the tangible and mars the mutable, and finally has come to look and not
to buy." How does it connect to Ruth's thoughts about the flood?
Figurative language can illuminate a complex idea or emotion, as when Ruth
describes what it feels like to eat lunch alone at school: "It seemed as if I were
trying to eat a peanut-butter sandwich while hanging by the neck" (p. 136). Ask
students to remember a situation in which they experienced strong or mixed
feelings that seemed difficult to put into words. Write a paragraph about that
situation using figurative language to describe their feelings.
Read Chapter 6 (pp. 95-108). What do the woods represent to Ruthie and
Lucille? How do their feelings differ?
8 • THE BIG READ
National Endowment for the Arts
Symbols are persons, places, or things in a narrative that have significance
beyond a literal understanding. The craft of storytelling depends on
symbols to present ideas and point toward new meanings. Most frequently,
a specific object will be used to refer to (or symbolize) a more abstract
concept. The repeated appearance of an object suggests a non-literal, or
figurative, meaning attached to the object. Symbols are often found in
the book's title, at the beginning and end of the story, within a profound
action, or in the name or personality of a character. The life of a novel is
perpetuated by generations of readers interpreting and re-interpreting the
main symbols. By identifying and understanding symbols, readers can
reveal new interpretations of the novel.
In Housekeeping, the lake and woods, the railroad bridge, and the house are
charged with symbolic meaning for Ruth, who associates them consciously
and subconsciously with the defining events of her past. She haunts these
places in search of self-knowledge, declaring that "everything must finally
be made comprehensible" (p. 92).
In the novel, Ruthie, Lucille, and Sylvie spend many hours at the lake. A place of
mystery, "the lightless, airless waters" suggest the constant presence of death
in life. Ruth's grandfather and mother plunge into it and die, yet, paradoxically,
the lake elicits memories that keep the dead alive. Working with the students,
analyze several descriptions of the lake (including pp. 9, 112, and 192-194).
Discuss how and why the lake functions as a symbol in the novel.
Read aloud the scene depicting Sylvie on the bridge (pp. 80-84) and the section
where Ruthie and Lucille stop going to school and spend time at the bridge (pp.
95-97). Have students analyze and write a few paragraphs about why and how
the bridge functions as a symbol in the novel. Helpful prompts might include:
Why are Ruthie and Lucille alarmed by Sylvie's presence on the bridge? What
happened on the bridge earlier in the novel? What does Sylvie mean when she
says, "I've always wondered what it would be like"? Do the bridge and lake, as
symbols, relate to each other? Have volunteers share their finished pieces with
Read Chapter 7 (pp. 109-142). Make a list of key events in the chapter, and note
in detail Lucille's changes in attitude and behavior.
National Endowment for the Arts
THE BIG READ • 9
Novels trace the development of characters who encounter a series of
challenges. Most characters contain a complex balance of virtues and vices.
Internal and external forces require characters to question themselves,
overcome fears, or reconsider dreams. The protagonist may undergo
profound change. A close study of character development maps, in each
character, the evolution of motivation, personality, and belief. The tension
between a character's strengths and weaknesses keeps the reader guessing
about what might happen next and the protagonists eventual success or
In the earliest chapters of Housekeeping, Ruthie is always in the company of
her younger sister, Lucille. The sisters are nearly inseparable; they exist as a
single entity, Helen's orphaned girls, referred to by Lily and Nona as "poor
things" (p. 32). But as they grow, the author reveals differences in their
developing characters. Ruthie is accepting and reflective about the chaotic
life that unfolds after her grandmothers death. Lucille is more critical and
demanding. "It'll be all right," Ruthie says to her, when Aunt Sylvie appears
to be running away after only one night in Fingerbone. "I know it'll be
all right, but it makes me mad," Lucille replies (pp. 55-56). In an ironic
reversal, Lucille and Ruthie, who as children had been "almost as a single
consciousness" (p. 98), suffer irreconcilable differences as teenagers. Lucille
challenges Ruthie's placid acceptance of Sylvie's ways and eventually moves
out, destabilizing Ruthie's life once again.
Read and discuss Handout Three: Family Dynamics in Housekeeping. Analyze and
discuss the dynamics of Sylvie, Ruthie, and Lucille's household. What does each
character want from the others? Do they change to accommodate each other?
If so, how?
Ask half the students to write a letter in Lucille's voice to Ruth, explaining why
Lucille left home. Ask the other half to write a letter in Ruth's voice to Lucille,
explaining why she should return home.
Read Chapter 8 (pp. 143-175). What is the reason for the visit to the abandoned
house in the valley? What sensations, thoughts, and feelings does Ruthie
experience there? Is the abandoned house similar to the Foster house?
10 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts
The author crafts a plot structure to create expectations, increase suspense,
and develop characters. The pacing of events can make a novel either
predictable or riveting. Foreshadowing and flashbacks allow the author to
defy the constraints of time. Sometimes an author can confound a simple
plot by telling stories within stories. In a conventional work of fiction, the
peak of the story's conflict — the climax — is followed by the resolution, or
denouement, in which the aftereffects of that climactic action are presented.
A number of events (the train disaster, the disappearances of Molly,
Helen, and Sylvie) occur before Ruthie s birth, yet they echo profoundly
throughout the novel. The reader is always aware of the influence of
the past on the unfolding plot. Just as the novel contains stories within
stories, it also contains journeys within journeys, as Ruth visits and revisits
symbolic places on her quest for meaning and self discovery.
Discussion and Writing Activities
Use the filmmaking technique of storyboarding to map the plot of the first eight
chapters. Have the students identify major plot elements. Use colored markers
and a large sheet of paper from an easel pad for each plot turn. Take turns
drawing scenes (stick figures are fine) and writing short summary statements
for each one. Examples: Ruth recounts her grandfather's death; Ruth recounts her
grandmother's life as a widow; Helen commits suicide; Ruthie and Lucille grow up with
their grandmother; Grandmother dies; Lily and Nona take up housekeeping. Ask the
students to note stories within stories and subplots in boxes along the bottom of
each page. Number each element. Display them in order around the room.
Read Chapter 9 (pp. 176-191). Why do the ladies of Fingerbone come to the
house? How does Sylvie characterize her relationship with Ruthie when she
speaks to the ladies? How does Sylvie's behavior change at the end of the
National Endowment for the Arts
THE BIG READ • | |
Themes are the central, recurring subjects of a novel. As characters grapple
with circumstances such as racism, class, or unrequited love, profound
questions will arise in the readers mind about human life, social pressures,
and societal expectations. Classic themes include intellectual freedom versus
censorship, the relationship between one's personal moral code and larger
political justice, and spiritual faith versus rational considerations. A novel
often reconsiders these age-old debates by presenting them in new contexts
or from new points of view.
Discussion and Writing Activities
Robinson announces the central theme of the book in the title: Housekeeping.
The theme is known from the outset, but her treatment of it quickly transcends
all ordinary associations with the concept. The novel might be described as a
meditation on the meaning of housekeeping, from its most ordinary aspects to
its farthest metaphorical potential: How does one make a home in the world?
Explore this theme through the following questions and exercises:
1. What does housekeeping mean to Grandmother Sylvia? What advice does she
offer the girls (Example: "Sell the orchards," p. 27)? How do Lily and Nona
view their housekeeping responsibilities?
2. Review the descriptions of Sylvie's housekeeping (including pp. 84-85,
99-103, and 180-181). Have students create a collective list of her
3. Discuss: How do Sylvie's habits differ from traditional ideas of housekeeping?
What sort of meals does she prefer (p. 87)? How does she disregard the
traditional boundaries between indoors and outdoors? Why? What insight can
the reader gain about Sylvie's housekeeping from the stories she tells? How do
the rituals of housekeeping relate to the keeping and nurturing of family and
family bonds? How does the author feel about the human project of "keeping
house" in a world where all living things perish eventually?
4. Work with students to create a list of other themes in the novel (for example,
abandonment, loneliness, and transience). Have students choose one theme
and write a short essay describing how one or more characters express
this theme in words and actions. Students should support their ideas with
examples from the text.
Read Chapters 10 and II (pp. 192-219). Why can Ruth no longer imagine going
into the house (p. 203)? What insights does Ruth have in the orchard? Why
do Ruth and Sylvie set the house on fire? What is Ruth's answer to her own
question: "When did I become so unlike other people?" (p. 214).
12 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts
a Book Great?
Great stories articulate and explore the mysteries of our daily lives in the
larger context of the human struggle. The writer's voice, style, and use of
language inform the plot, characters, and themes. By creating opportunities
to learn, imagine, and reflect, a great novel is a work of art that affects
many generations of readers, changes lives, challenges assumptions, and
breaks new ground.
Ask students to make a list of the characteristics of a great book. Write these
on the board. What elevates a novel to greatness? Then ask them to discuss, in
groups, other books that include some of these characteristics. Do any of these
books remind them of Housekeeping? Is this a great novel?
A great writer can be the voice of a generation. What kind of voice does
Marilynne Robinson create in Housekeeping 7 .
Ask students to write a short essay exploring their personal reactions to
Housekeeping. Students should go beyond expressing like or dislike. Ask them to
make a list of emotions they felt while reading the novel, and to examine why.
Which characters and scenes did they relate to, and which remained strange or
difficult to comprehend? Was the resolution of the novel satisfying? Comforting?
Select an essay topic, or have students choose from the list of Essay Topics
provided in this guide. Ask students to come to the next class with a draft of
their thesis for the essay.
National Endowment for the Arts
THE BIG READ ■ 13
The discussion activities and writing exercises in this guide provide you with possible essay topics,
as do the Discussion Questions in the Readers Guide. Advanced students can come up with
their own essay topics, as long as they are specific and compelling. Other ideas for essays are
For essays, students should organize their ideas around a thesis about the novel. This statement or
thesis should be focused, with clear reasons supporting its conclusion. The thesis and supporting
reasons should be backed by references to the text.
1. If you were in Ruthie and Lucille's situation,
would you choose to live with Miss Royce, or
cross the bridge with Sylvie? Explain in detail
why you would choose one lifestyle and reject
the other. What is Lucille seeking by choosing
an orderly, conventional life? What are the
advantages and disadvantages of her choice?
What has Ruth gained and what has she lost
in choosing a transient life? Support your
opinions with passages from the text.
2. Analyze the symbolic role of the house in
the novel. Describe what it represents to
various characters in the novel (Edmund
Foster, Sylvia Foster, Ruthie, Lucille, Sylvie,
and the women of the town). On pages
152-159, Ruth describes her thoughts as she
explores the abandoned homestead on the
island. What does Ruth mean when she says,
"the appearance of relative solidity in my
grandmother's house was deceptive"? Why
does she say "it is better to have nothing"?
Why do Sylvie and Ruth try to burn down the
In the final chapter of the novel, Ruthie and
Sylvie cross the bridge to escape Fingerbone.
"I believe it was the crossing of the bridge
that changed me finally," Ruth says (p. 215).
How and why is this a symbolic crossing? For
Ruth, what is the purpose of the crossing, and
what is being crossed? What subject does she
dwell on while crossing the bridge? What, in a
symbolic sense, is she leaving behind, escaping,
or liberating herself from?
Ruth's imagination is extravagant, and she is
constantly looking for meaningful patterns
in the world. Carefully select three or four
revealing passages that describe Ruth's inner
thoughts. What does each reveal about her
concerns, hopes, and fears? What does her
language tell you about her background? How
do certain word choices reveal the way she
sees the world? Create a written portrait
of Ruth, using the passages as evidence to
support your ideas.
14 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts
Teachers may consider the ways in which these activities may be linked to other Big Read
community events. Most of these projects could be shared at a local library, student assembly, or
I. Read and discuss the following description
The people of Fingerbone and its environs
were very much given to murder. And
it seemed that for every pitiable crime
there was an appalling accident. What with
the lake and the railroads, and what with
blizzards and floods and barn fires and forest
fires and the general availability of shotguns
and bear traps and homemade liquor and
dynamite, what with the prevalence of
loneliness and religion and the rages and
ecstasies they induce, and the closeness
of families, violence was inevitable,
Marilynne Robinson has acknowledged that her
hometown of Sandpoint, Idaho, was a model
for Fingerbone. Using PowerPoint, work as
a team to produce a historical slideshow of
Sandpoint during the 1940s and 1950s. Have
students research topics such as logging and
mining, hunting, weather (Was there a real
flood? Fires? A snowstorm that caused houses
to collapse?), railroads and railroad bridges
(Was there a railroad bridge? A train accident?
Does the bridge still exist?), Lake Pend Oreille;
cultural/social life in town, etc. The goal might
be for each student to create two or three
slides for his or her topic. Students should
include photographs, music, and spoken word
(with appropriate permissions). The Bonner
County Historical Society, Sandpoint web site,
and Sandpoint Magazine archives are possible
resources. The finished slideshow could be
presented at Big Read discussions or events
around the community or displayed in the
public library or another community site.
Plan an evening of readings from Housekeeping.
A local coffee shop that hosts open mike
events might make a nice venue. Help
interested students select sections of the
novel to prepare as dramatic readings or
monologues. Arrange for a drama coach
or actors from a local theatre company to
help students prepare their selections. (A
local theatre company might be interested in
partnering with your students and participating
in this event, giving students a chance to work
with seasoned actors.) Plan ahead and publicize
Ask a historian, folklore expert, or storyteller
to give a presentation on tramps, hoboes, and
boxcar drifters associated with the railroads
and the Dust Bowl era. Or take the class to
the local library or historical society to see
photographs and artifacts related to railroad
folklore. Arrange with staff ahead of time to
have a variety of materials available.
After students have read the novel, arrange
for the class to watch the 1987 film version
of Housekeeping, written and directed by Bill
Forsyth. Before watching the movie, have the
class read the brief essay on the film in the
Reader's Guide (p. 9). Afterward, discuss the
film in relation to the novel. What aspects
of the novel did the film illuminate? How
did the characters compare to those in the
novel? Does the film succeed in presenting
the essence of the story of Housekeeping?
If so, how?
National Endowment for the Arts
THE BIG READ ■ 15
Construction of the Sandpoint Railroad Bridge
Sylvie and I walked the whole black night across
the railroad bridge at Fingerbone — a very long
bridge, as you know if you have seen it.
— from Housekeeping, p. 216
Author Marilynne Robinson grew up in Idaho
watching trains traverse the Sandpoint railroad
bridge, a long, dramatic span of track suspended
over the deep waters of Lake Pend Oreille. Forty
trains each day now pass through Sandpoint, but
imagine how vast and impenetrable the Idaho
wilderness must have seemed when surveyors for
the Northern Pacific Railroad arrived in the 1850s.
Before the railroad arrived, travelers to the area
relied on Indian trails, and the town of Sandpoint
didn't exist. The first railroad bridge was built in
1882, as part of a three-hundred-mile segment of
track constructed west from Heron, Montana to
Wallula, Washington. The original bridge, updated
in 1905, was constructed with wooden pilings and
ties cut from virgin timber harvested from the
In Eugene Virgil Smalley's extraordinary History
of the Northern Pacific Railroad, published in
1883, the building of the bridge itself is reported
as somewhat less arduous than the construction
of track leading up to the shores of Lake Pend
As the railroad approaches Lake Pend Oreille
from the west, the country becomes broken
with ridges and deep ravines, and much trestle
and piling is required. Within three miles of
the lake there are three trestles — one 2,000
feet long, one 1,400 feet, and one 1,300 feet.
The work was performed by several thousand
men, Smalley noted, "in spite of heavy snow-falls."
There were no settlements along the construction
path east of Spokane. All supplies were hauled in
on horse-drawn wagons. The coming of spring
put an end to the miseries of snow, but it brought
high water and terrible mud as work began on the
bridge. Still, the workers endured. The finished
bridge had a length of 8,400 feet (1.6 miles).
Smalley wrote that "six hundred feet of this
structure runs across such deep water that piles
from 90 to 100 feet in length are required."
Within a few years, Sandpoint became a rowdy,
booming railroad town. In 1908, another long
bridge was built over the lake to carry wagons
and, eventually, cars. But the railroad bridge is
Robinson's chosen image in the novel, perhaps
because it recalls a time when a train pulling into
town held any number of interesting possibilities in
a lonely place, including escape.
16 ' THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts
First- Person Narration in Housekeeping
The first-person narrator of Housekeeping announces
her identity in the first sentence of the novel: "My
name is Ruth." Beginning this way suggests that
identity is the primal force of the story. Everything
we experience in the novel will be filtered through
Ruths senses, her thoughts and language.
Marilynne Robinson could have chosen a third-
person narrator to tell the story: Her name is Ruth.
She grew up with her younger sister, Lucille, under the
care of her grandmother. . . . But Housekeeping is, at
its core, a novel of self-discovery. Beneath the novel's
beautiful, grave sentences, mysterious characters,
and wild landscapes, is Ruth's lone search for the
answer to a question she defines for herself:
When did I become so unlike other people?
First-person narration allows the story to belong
entirely to Ruth. She alone has direct access to her
inner experience. Ruth sees, hears, and thinks like
a poet as she moves through the world, and first-
person narration allows us to feel enveloped by her
poetic consciousness, to experience her extraordinary
inner voice directly:
And there is no living creature, though
the whims of eons had put its eyes on
boggling stalks and clamped it in a carapace,
diminished it to a pinpoint and given it a taste
for mud and stuck it down a well or hid it
under a stone, but that creature will live on if
it can (p. 178).
"I hear a voice that I would say is not my voice,"
Robinson explains. "When I read Housekeeping
out loud, I hear it over again in my mind. I'm very
interested in the musicality of language."
In a variation on a traditional first-person voice,
Ruth is able to narrate not only the events of her
own lifetime, but some that occur before she was
born. Describing the aftermath of the deadly train
derailment, she is uncannily aware of visual details,
knowing that "shivers flew when a swimmer
surfaced, and the membrane of ice that formed
where the ice was torn looked new, glassy, and
black" (p. 8).
This narrative fluidity gives Ruth an expanded
authority over matters of family history and raises
interesting questions about memory and knowledge.
Commenting on this unusual narrative stance in
an interview published in Willow Springs, Robinson
says, "a lot of what I knew and a lot of what seemed
important in my early life were descriptions of
things I had not seen that had a profound reality
in my imagination, because they were told among
people whose importance to me is mythic, in the
way that grandparents and aunts and uncles are to
children. So I think there's a huge psychological
latitude with the first-person because we have a
much greater store of experience than what we
Ruth's voice, more than any other aspect of the
novel, creates its distinctive tone. First-person
narration allows the reader to accompany her
unhindered into a private world.
National Endowment lor the Arts
THE BIG READ • |7
Family Dynamics in Housekeeping
Families in which nothing is ever discussed
usually have a lot not to discuss.
— Mason Cooley
Families edit their histories. They tell some stories,
but not others. And within stories they select
certain details to include and others to avoid.
In Housekeeping, the Foster family becomes a
matriarchy by spectacular accident, but we soon
learn that a certain ambivalence toward men
is more than accidental. As readers, we have to
wonder about Edmund and Sylvia's marriage when
she views his death as an extension of his habit of
disappearing. We wonder still more when Ruth
describes how her grandfather once helped her
grandmother over a puddle "with a wordless and
impersonal courtesy that she did not resent because
she had never really wished to feel married to
anyone." After Edmund, no man occupies a place
in the Foster family for long.
The serene and ordered life that follows for
widowed Sylvia and her three daughters is missing
something. Family silence surrounds the difficult
subjects of abandonment and loss. Ruth describes
an unspoken anxiety in the Foster girls, telling
us that Molly, Helen, and Sylvie "hovered" and
watched their mother; they "pressed her and
touched her as if she had just returned after an
absence." Yet these anxieties, along with grief for
their father, are never voiced. "The disaster," Ruth
says, "had fallen out of sight, like the train itself."
Sylvia's silence on the "big subjects" may be what
hastens the departures of her grown daughters,
which seem less like rites of passage and more like
escapes. Or, could it be that the girls have inherited
their father's tendency to disappear? Molly vanishes
into "the Orient," Helen and Sylvie into marriages
that don't last. (If Edmund is a ghost in the novel,
then the estranged husbands of Helen and Sylvie
are mere vapors.) "Our grandmother never spoke
of any of her daughters," Ruth observes, "and
when they were mentioned to her, she winced with
There is a family connection between Edmund's
death and Helen's when she drives off a cliff
into the same lake that took his life. But no one
ever blurts out this astonishing association. It
remains submerged, like the train, and Helen's
In Sylvie, the drifter, we see the family silence
reveal itself in a new generation. Lucille, the
youngest and angriest of her nieces, questions her
insistently for family details, but her answers are
vague, even impersonal. When Lucille asks why
Sylvie never had children, she scolds: "You must
know, Lucille . . . that some questions aren't polite.
I'm sure that my mother must have told you that."
Could it be that Ruth's story is her response to
family silence? In one sense, the novel is Ruth's
piecing together the scattered scraps of memory
and history into a real story at last, filling in the
blanks with water and wind, the elements of her
ancestral Fingerbone. As the Foster family may
have known when they chose silence, there is
sorrow in the telling. However, as Ruth observes,
"What are all these fragments for, if not to be knit
18 • THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts
Pinsker, Sanford. Conversations with Contemporary American
Writers. Atlanta, GA: Editions Rodopi, 1985.
Conover, Ted. Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails with
America's Hoboes. New York: Vintage Books, 2001.
Works by Marilynne Robinson
Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State, and Nuclear
The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (1998)
Books that include essays by Marilynne Robinson
Abernethy, Bob, and William Bole. The Life of Meaning:
Reflections on Faith, Doubt, and Repairing the World. New
York: Seven Stories Press, 2007.
Thornton, John R, and Susan B. Varenne, eds. John Calvin:
Steward of God's Covenant: Selected Writings. Preface by
Marilynne Robinson. New York: Vintage, 2006.
Bonner County Historical Society. This site contains
articles and stories about Bonner County, Idaho,
including the town of Sandpoint.
www.sandpointonline.com/sandpointmag/smsO I /
Sandpoint Magazine. "100 Years of Memories." The site
contains oral interviews with Sandpoint, Idaho, residents
on topics of local history from 1901 to the present day.
Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest.
Information and curriculum packets on Pacific Northwest
history, culture, and literature, including an essay, "My
Western Roots," by Marilynne Robinson, are included on
this Web site.
A collection of selected images by Darius Kinsey, the
most important photographer of logging in the Pacific
Northwest. The University of Washington Libraries'
collection illustrates logging and lumbering from the turn
of the century until the 1940s.
Willow Springs. Includes an interview with Marilynne
Robinson conducted by Sarah Flynn, Thomas King,
and Adam O'Connor Rodriguez on April 24, 2006.
National Endowment for the Arts
THE BIG READ • |9
National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Standards"
1. Students read a wide range of print and
non-print texts to build an understanding of
texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of
the United States and the world; to acquire
new information; to respond to the needs
and demands of society and the workplace;
and for personal fulfillment. Among these
texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and
2. Students read a wide range of literature from
many periods in many genres to build an
understanding of the many dimensions (e.g.,
philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human
3. Students apply a wide range of strategies
to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and
appreciate texts. They draw on their prior
experience, their interactions with other
readers and writers, their knowledge of
word meaning and of other texts, their
word identification strategies, and their
understanding of textual features (e.g.,
sound-letter correspondence, sentence
structure, context, graphics).
4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written,
and visual language (e.g., conventions, style,
vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a
variety of audiences and for different purposes.
5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as
they write and use different writing process
elements appropriately to communicate with
different audiences for a variety of purposes.
6. Students apply knowledge of language
structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling
and punctuation), media techniques, figurative
language, and genre to create, critique, and
discuss print and non-print texts.
7. Students conduct research on issues and
interests by generating ideas and questions, and
by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and
synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g.,
print and non-print texts, artifacts, people) to
communicate their discoveries in ways that suit
their purpose and audience.
8. Students use a variety of technological and
information resources (e.g., libraries, databases,
computer networks, video) to gather and
synthesize information and to create and
9. Students develop an understanding of and
respect for diversity in language use, patterns,
and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups,
geographic regions, and social roles.
10. Students whose first language is not English
make use of their first language to develop
competency in the English language arts and to
develop understanding of content across the
1 1 . Students participate as knowledgeable,
reflective, creative, and critical members of a
variety of literary communities.
12. Students use spoken, written, and visual
language to accomplish their own purposes
(e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and
the exchange of information).
This guide was developed with NCTE Standards and State Language Arts Standards in mind. Use these standards to guide and
develop your application of the curriculum.
20 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts
FOR THE ARTS
Tor even things lost
in a house abide, like
forgotten sorrows and
— MARILYNNE ROBINSON
The Big Read is an initiative of the National
Endowment for the Arts designed to restore reading
to the center of American culture. The NEA presents
The Big Read in partnership with the Institute of
Museum and Library Services and in cooperation
with Arts Midwest.
A great nation deserves great art.