"I want to overhear passionate arguments about what we are and what we are doing and what we ought to do. I want to feel that art is an utterance made in good faith by one human being to another. I want to believe there are geniuses scheming to astonish the rest of us, just for the pleasure of it."
—Marilynne Robinson, from her introduction to The Death of Adam
As the industrial revolution changed the American economy and fences and railroads crisscrossed the western frontier, a new way of life emerged. Train travel opened up the West for people looking for a new job, a new start, or a new adventure. For many of the small outpost towns in the Northwest, trains were one of the few ways to get beyond the city limits.
The Northern Pacific Railway traversed Marilynne Robinson's hometown of Sandpoint, winding its way from Minnesota toward the Pacific Ocean. The towns along its route in Idaho were rarely a destination, but always a place for moving through. Although Housekeeping's Fingerbone is fictional, the railroad bridge is not; it was built in 1905 to replace the original, built in 1882. The bridge connects Sandpoint to Venton, Idaho, across an 8,000-foot-wide expanse of the Pend Oreille River.
By the 1930s, the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression caused a great migration out of the Plains states and into the groves and vineyards of California, as chronicled in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939). An itinerant population also began moving through the country, making temporary homes on railroad cars and park benches. Among them, terms were codified to identify someone's status on the rails. According to Ben Reitman, a physician who worked with the poor in Chicago in the early twentieth century, "a hobo was someone who traveled and worked, a tramp was someone who traveled but didn't work, and a bum was someone who didn't travel and didn't work."
The image of the tramp has been an archetype of American fiction from Jack London to Jack Kerouac, a romanticized rebel who casts off responsibility for the freedom of the road, learning hard lessons about himself and society along the way. In Housekeeping, Robinson's Sylvie doesn't fit the mold. Here is a tramp come home, responsible now for mothering two young girls, keeping up appearances around town, and keeping house. This interweaving of restlessness into domestication and domestication into restlessness is ultimately untenable. The girls and Sylvie must choose between a rumbling wanderlust and a place called home.