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Raised near the mountains of Sandpoint, Idaho, novelist Marilynne Robinson remembers sensing God's presence there long before she had a name for him. "I was aware to the point of alarm of a vast energy of intention, all around me," she writes, "barely restrained, and I thought everyone else must be aware of it." Perhaps they were, but in a culture in which "it was characteristic to be silent about things that in any way moved them," the young Robinson was, in her deepest experiences, alone.

There were mentors, though. She remembers her grandfather holding an iris blossom before her, quietly commending its miracle of form, and the "patient old woman who taught me Presbyterianism," offering Moses' burning bush and Pharaoh's dream of famine as wonders to contemplate. In their reticent attention, both mentors gave Robinson a way to stand before mystery and gradually behold it. "It was as if some old relative had walked me down to the lake knowing an imperious whim of heaven had made it a sea of gold and glass, and had said, This is a fine evening, and walked me home again."

Robinson's first novel, Housekeeping (1980), began as a series of prose exercises inspired by the great 19th-century American writers Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and Henry David Thoreau. Their rapturous, attentive language drew Robinson back to her childhood landscape, giving her a way to re-inhabit that spiritually charged world. Readers greeted Housekeeping as a masterpiece, praising in particular the haunting voice of its narrator, Ruth, whose prose circled and looped, creating a world out of orphaned bits of memory and observation. Raised by her transient, railroad-riding Aunt Sylvie, Ruth finds in her aunt's disregard for boundaries a way to touch ...

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February 2010

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