The authors’ original words do their work more justice than any book review I write, and when grouped together, the quotes become atmospheric of the state they are set in. I hope you enjoy this addition of a “Favorite Quotes” series to my Andrea Reads America coverage.
From Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
“He had grown up in the Middle West, in a house dug out of the ground, with windows just at earth level and just at eye level, so that from without, the house was a mere mound, no more a human stronghold than a grave.”
“So the wind that billowed her sheets announced to her the resurrection of the ordinary.”
“Sometimes the sun would be warm enough to send a thick sheet of snow sliding off the roof, and sometimes the fir trees would shrug, and the snow would fall with surprisingly loud and earthy thuds, which would terrify my great-aunts.”
“Sylvie believed in stern solvents, and most of all in air. It was for the sake of air that she opened doors and windows.”
“There the wind would be, quenching the warmth out of the air before the light was gone, raising the hairs on our arms and necks with its smell of frost and water and deep shade.”
“It seemed to me that if she could remain transient here, she would not have to leave.”
“Sylvie was often at the lake. Sometimes she came home with fish in her pockets.”
“The frost is so thick that the grass cracks when you step on it.”
“Lot’s wife was salt and barren, because she was full of loss and mourning, and looked back.”
“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.”
“Now truly we were cast out to wander, and there was an end to housekeeping.”
From The Jailing of Cecelia Capture by Janet Campbell Hale
“‘Not poor? How can you sit there and say that with a straight face? Why I remember your momma told my momma once that your daddy got drunk and spent his paycheck and you had to pick up beer bottles alongside the road for lunch money and you had holes in the bottoms of your shoes. You had to line them with newspapers. If that ain’t poor, I sure don’t know what is.'”
“She had been the daughter of a half-insane, mean old woman and an ineffective alcoholic father, and she had grown up poor and unwanted. She had been an unmarried welfare mother and finally become a drunk herself.”
“She remembered the old man in the bar in the Mission District telling her, ‘We are the biggest tribe of all, us displaced ones, us urban Indians, us sidewalk redskins.'”
From Train Dreams by Denis Johnson
“It was Saturday night, and in preparation for the evening a number of the railroad gang from Meadow Creek were gathered at the hole, bathing with their clothes on and sitting themselves out on the rocks to dry before the last of the daylight left the canyon.”
“He liked the grand size of things in the woods, the feeling of being lost and far away, and the sense he had that with so many trees as wardens, no danger could find him.”
“The moss on the shingled roof of her home curled and began to smoke faintly. The logs in the walls stressed and popped like large-bore cartridges going off. On the table by the stove a magazine curled, darkened, flamed, spiraled upward, and flew away page by page, burning and circling.”
“‘I know everything,’ Heinz sputtered and fumed, somewhat like an automobile himself, and said, ‘I’m God!’
Grainier thought about how to answer. Here seemed a conversation that could go no further.”
“‘In a civilized place, the widows don’t have much to say about who they marry. There’s too many running around without husbands. But here on the frontier, we’re at a premium. We can take who we want, though it’s not such a bargain. The trouble is you men are all worn down pretty early in life.'”
“God needs the hermit in the woods as much as He needs the man in the pulpit.”
“He very often wept in church. Living up the Moyea with plenty of small chores to distract him, he forgot he was a sad man. When the hymns began, he remembered.”
Idaho is my first venture to the American Northwest, in real life and in fiction. Before reading the state, I knew little about Idaho except that Boise is there and Idaho is known for potatoes. None of the books I read made reference to Boise or potatoes. Instead I experienced the railroads, forests, and small frontier towns of northern Idaho, and I learned about life on a reservation there — and the future ramifications of a one woman’s reservation upbringing.
Author: Marilynne Robinson, born Sandpoint, Idaho
Setting: 1940s or ’50s glacial lake in northern Idaho
Categories: Literary fiction, Pulitzer nominee
Housekeeping, a book that captures both the wild and the tame, is a book about keeping a house in all of the senses of the word: the way we clean and organize our homes; whether we have a physical structure for a home or are transients; how we keep the members of a household in our minds; and the way others judge us based on any aspect of our housekeeping. If we keep our homes tidy, we are respected; if there are cobwebs, broken windows, or hoarded newspapers and tin cans, we are not. If we have a physical house, we are trusted; if we are transient, we are not. If we mourn (and recover from) the deaths of members of our household in the expected manner, we are accepted; if we mourn (and recover from) them incorrectly, we are not.
In Housekeeping, Lucille and Ruth, the two young girls of this novel whose lives are marked by death and abandonment, diverge on the “correct” and “incorrect” means of keeping house. When their aunt Slyvie arrives to take care of them, looking like a hobo who has arrived by jumping a train (which she did), the girls learn a new way to live. Ruth takes to Sylvie’s ways; Lucille does not.
Sylvie is a non-traditional house keeper: she is a drifter. The town does not know what to make of her, arriving in a boxcar to care for her orphaned nieces, sleeping on benches with a newspaper over her face. At home — home being a somewhat foreign concept to her — she stores tin cans, bottles, and magazines:
Sylvie only kept them, I think, because she considered accumulation to be the essence of housekeeping.
Sylvie is a wanderer, and Ruth follows her in her wanderings. This book speaks in dream-like scenes, vivid with wildness when outside of the structure of a house: scenes of crumbling houses in the forest, of stealing a boat on the wild lake that claimed the lives of the girls’ grandfather and mother, of crossing a railroad bridge, on foot, unprotected in the dark of night, and of burning a house full of sentimental objects. Housekeeping explores the stock we put into houses, and in keeping them.
Robinson’s writing is gorgeous, and engages all the senses:
There the wind would be, quenching the warmth out of the air before the light was gone, raising the hair on our arms and necks with its smell of frost and water and deep shade.
Robinson’s was my favorite Idaho read. I cannot wait to get to Iowa so I can read more of her work.
Novel: The Jailing of Cecelia Capture
Author: Janet Campbell Hale, lives on the Coeur d’Alene Reservationin De Smet, Idaho
Setting: 1960s-1980s California & Idaho
Categories: Native American Fiction
Set in the 1980s, mainly in a jail cell in California with flashbacks to 1960s and 70s Idaho and Washington, The Jailing of Cecelia Capture tells the story of a poor, Native American welfare mother who grows up on a reservation in Idaho and escapes that land — and her family — as soon as she is able. She sees better things for herself than a drunken father and a spiteful mother, something better than poverty, something better than a traditional squaw role.
Like the author, who is of an Idaho tribe but grew up in Washington state and California, this book is more about how a tribal upbringing on a reservation shapes Capture more than it is about Idaho. Cecelia’s is a hard life, full of disappointments, bad choices, and a constant trying-and-failing to find her place, and her people, in the world.
She had been the daughter of a half-insane, mean old woman and an ineffective alcoholic father, and she had grown up poor and unwanted. She had been an unmarried welfare mother and finally become a drunk herself.
It is when she is jailed for drunk driving, and is incarcerated for days instead of hours, not knowing why she isn’t being released, that Ceceliais forced to stop running, stop drinking, and take a hard look at her life. She fought all her life to get somewhere, but despite her trying, she had had gotten nowhere but a jail cell.
What is refreshing about this book is that it is not a predictable rags to riches story. It is, however, a story that needs to be told, and is one that will stick with me for a while. Cecelia isn’t a particularly likable character, or even admirable, and those flaws make her story realistic: she is lost and has no role models. I don’t like her, but I believe her story, and sadly, I believe it is a story of many, not just of Cecelia Capture.
Novel: Train Dreams
Author: Denis Johnson
Setting: 1920s panhandle of Idaho
Categories: Literary Fiction, Pulitzer nominee
Train Dreams shows northern Idaho in its pioneer days: the early 1900s, when forests were being felled for timber, and train trestles were being built for the Spokane International. Johnson shows a northwestern state in its original form, rugged and wild, even as man attempted to wrestle the land to submission:
Swarms of men did away with portions of the forest and assembled structures as big as anything going, knitting massive wooden trestles in the air of impassable chasms, always bigger, longer, deeper.
When I first finished the book, it felt simple. Straightforward. I didn’t understand that there might be something more to understand about it. Despite its small size — only 69 pages — Train Dreams is filled with vivid scenes of what life was like in Idaho during this time.
As the novella sank in, I realized these scenes are bigger than a small story set in small-town frontier Idaho: the shameful treatment of Chinese immigrants and of natives who were there before the white man; the big woods and their felling; forest fires that consume entire landscapes; wild animals and solitary men; the building of tracks; the whistles of trains; and how all of these scenes show the blending of wild and tame — and the morphing of one to the other. More importantly, these potent scenes demonstrate the role man plays in the balance between the civilized world and the wilderness:
God needs the hermit in the woods as much as he needs the man in the pulpit.
Books that have been recommended to me and I have not yet read:
– The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon by Tom Spanbauer
– Borrowed Horses by Sian Griffiths
– Girl Imagined by Chance by Lance Olsen
In a civilized place, the widows don’t have much to say about who they marry. There’s too many running around without husbands. But here on the frontier, we’re at a premium. We can take who we want, though it’s not not such a bargain. The trouble is you men are all worn down pretty early in life.
— from Train Dreams by Denis Johnson