Need help to write a Discussion Question: Share your Favorite Writing

timer Asked: Dec 19th, 2015
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Question description

Answer these questions along with your excerpt:

  • Why does this writing captivate you?
  • What aspects of writing do you think it does well, and how? (character, description, dialogue, plot, style, etc.)
  • You might also tell us when you first saw/heard this, how you came across it, how you felt when you first experienced it, etc.
Be sure to share at least a few lines of the writing so everyone can see it firsthand.


Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson is one of my favorite novels. The story is narrated by young Ruth who, along with her sister, Lucille, has been orphaned after her mother's suicide. Ruth and Lucille are raised by their aunt, an ex-drifter, who wanders about the town and lets their house go to ruin. Ruth is attracted to this aunt's life outside the norm, while Lucille wants the convention and order of regular society. The story becomes an exploration of loss, identity, and existence. I don't think it'd be out of line to call it the world's most beautiful ghost story.

The book opens with Ruth telling the story of how the train on which her grandfather worked plunged from a high bridge into the lake below. I've typed in an excerpt:

"Though it was reported in newspapers as far away as Denver and St. Paul, it was not, strictly speaking, spectacular, because no one saw it happen. The disaster took place midway through a moonless night. The train, which was black and sleek and elegant, and was called the Fireball, had pulled more than halfway across the bridge when the engine nosed over toward the lake and then the rest of the train slid after it into the water like a weasel sliding off a rock. A porter and a waiter who were standing at the railing at the rear of the caboose discussing personal matters (they were distantly related) survived, but they were not really witnesses in any sense, for the equally sound reasons that the darkness was impenetrable to any eye and that they been standing at the end of the train looking back."

This paragraph captured me with its extraordinary imagery. What a way to start a book! Yet the high drama of this image is grounded with Robinson's elegant and sure-footed prose. Her words are not flashy or multisyllabic. She does not pile on the adjectives. And yet, every word she chooses is the right word. Even her one use of figurative language is concrete and simple, comparing the train to "a weasel sliding off a rock." Robinson's language works to make an extraordinary event concrete and believable. It's a good reminder that often the simplest language is the most beautiful.

Robinson is also a master of the symbol and setting. The train in this paragraph is never unearthed, neither are any of its passengers, and so it remains at the bottom of the lake for the rest of the novel. It's rarely mentioned, and yet, as a reader, you know it's there. The surface of the lake acts as a mirror between the living world and the world beyond. As the characters wander further from the conventions of society they are drawn more and more often to the lake and the ghosts beneath its surface. I strongly recommend this quiet, powerful, haunting novel.

Tutor Answer

Carnegie Mellon University

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Goes above and beyond expectations !

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