Discovered: An Eighth Type of Ambiguity
Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping (1980)
Despite the title, this novel really revolves around the gradual unravelling of the family and household of the narrator, Ruth. At the end of the book – which is the only part that concerns us here – Ruth and her Aunt Sylvie, who gave up life as a transient to try to raise Ruth and her sister, leave town to jump a train and become transients together. This passage is from the very end of the novel:
We caught the next westbound and drowsed among poultry crates all the way to Seattle. From there we went to Portland, and from there to Crescent City, and from there to Vancouver, and from there again to Seattle. At first our trail was intricate so that we would elude discovery, and then it was intricate because we had no particular reason to go to one town rather than another, and no particular reason to stay anywhere, or to leave. (216)
It’s perhaps needless to say that, at this point, I just assumed I had found a reference to Canada, and it was only after the Wow – Canada! research staff did a little digging into the geography of the Pacific Northwest that we learned there is also a Vancouver in Washington state.
Given that the area they’re wandering through could include either place, it’s difficult to determine whether the Vancouver mentioned is the American one or the one in British Columbia; this is, then, an ambiguously Canadian reference. It could certainly be read as a reference to Canada (and likely will be, at least by Canadians); at the same time, it doesn’t need to be read as such, and is not explicitly one. We might argue that since the (American) narrator never clearly states that she means the Vancouver in Canada, we should just assume she means the American one; on the other hand, we might point out that Vancouver seems to be the furthest point on the journey, since it is followed by a return to Seattle, which might indicate that the Vancouver they visited is in another country.
And, as we have seen before, American authors often refer to Canadian places without specifying that they are in Canada, and treat Canadian locations as if they were part of some mythical “greater United States” that includes Canada, so given that, the absence of a specifically Canadian identification doesn’t preclude the possibility that they did go to the Canadian Vancouver.
Whatever the truth – if such a thing exists – it’s interesting to note that both British Columbia and Washington contain a Vancouver, which indicates something of the intertwined nature of the North American history we share with our neighbour to the south.