Reading Like a Writer: Marilynne Robinson

These sentences are from Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson: “My name is Ruth. I grew up with my younger sister, Lucille, under the care of my grandmother, Mrs. Sylvia Foster, and when she died, of her sisters-in-law, Misses Lily and Nona Foster, and when they fled, of her daughter, Mrs. Sylvia Fisher.”

Interesting, interesting, interesting. Here are some of my thoughts.

  • Does “My name is Ruth” echo of “Call me Ishmael”? Maybe others have already written about these similarities:
    • “Call me Ishmael,” at least to me, has always implied that the character’s actual name is something else besides Ishmael. Robinson’s sentence is a similarly direct, short statement, but of actual identity.
    • Like Moby Dick, the first two sentences contrast with each other; both are short to long sentences, simple to complicated.
    • Again like Moby Dick, the sentences are an introduction to a community, but the narrator views herself as part of it and the community is much smaller, much more specific. The fourth sentence of Moby Dick, specifically, dives within Ishmael and describes him as at odds with the community around him: “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos gets such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”
  • The second sentence from Housekeeping includes an absence: Ruth’s parents. Neither her mother not her father are mentioned, though a large group of female relatives and caregivers are. This absence creates all kinds of implicit questions, and readers are likely to read on in search of answers to those questions.
    • The second sentence, as I’ve mentioned, includes implicit questions almost within each phrase. Those general or abstract phrases could be unpacking into specific sensory scenes and chapters. How and where did Ruth grow up with Lucille? What does it mean to be “under the care of” a grandmother? How were these people different from and alike each other? What did they think of each other? What was the death of the grandmother like? Why did the sisters flee?
    • The second sentence also implies a general novel-length process (growing up and growing up with a sister and growing up with a sister without a father or mother, though the mother’s family is present) while involving many characters in many different ways.

What did you notice? Which strategies modeled here do you want to try in a sentence or two?

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