The recent publication of Marilynne Robinson's Gilead has drawn attention to that unusual but not unprecedented phenomenon: the great first novel that becomes an instant classic and awakens our appetite for more, only to be followed by years of silence.

We who loved the miraculous first book, Housekeeping (1980), have been left in a state of suspended longing and need, just like the characters in the novel. In the intervening decades Robinson has written essays, book reviews and two non-fiction books, Mother Country (1989), decrying nuclear pollution at Sellafield in England; and a collection of essays on modern ideology and Christian theology, The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (1998). But none of these satisfies our craving for another novel as powerful as Housekeeping.

Although still the subject of academic dissertations and critical commentary, Robinson's first novel is not as well known among younger readers and today's general reading public as it should be. A recent re-reading convinces me that it stands the test of time, so I hope the publication of Gilead (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 256 pages, $23) will prompt a new generation to discover the joys of Housekeeping for themselves. It is a book that continues to speak in a timely way to enduring problems of human consciousness and the narrative imagination. Although often compared to 19th-century greats like Dickin-son or Wordsworth, Robinson's voice can now more easily be understood as part of a continuing conversation among contemporary women writers. Among Housekeeping's central concerns, perhaps none seems more urgent today than Robinson's complex understanding of motherhood.

In the United States, our level of confusion about maternal rights and responsibilities has never been higher. The bonds between a mother and her children still carry a weight of psychological and material investment that bears on daily lives, innermost fantasies and public policies. But cutting-edge reproductive technologies have undermined even the once-firm biological definition of motherhood. Who or what is the real mother, when one child can easily have a genetic mother, a gestating mother and a custodial mother? Social changes as radical and contradictory as abortion rights and fetal rights add to the mix, while economic disruptions challenge the material well-being of so many families.

Our norms of good mothering were largely invented in the 19th century, when for the first time many Western mothers could assume that the majority of their children might survive infancy. But Victorian ideals can't address the reality of many people's experiences today. In a divided nation, we seem further than ever from developing a shared sense of how to understand and meet the current needs of both mothers and children.

In such circumstances, novels like Housekeeping should remain essential reading. Before the late 20th century, mothers were almost never the speakers or the writers; most stories were told from the child's point of view, the mother idealized or demonized. But at last, more women are telling their own stories, both in fiction and in nonfiction. From the Madres of the Plaza de Mayo and other motherist movements in Latin America to a host of English language novelists including Atwood, Erdrich, Head, Morrison, Munro, Piercy, Walker, Weldon and so many others, women are inventing different strategies to dispute old ideas.

One key new motif in both real and fictional women's stories is the figure of the "mother without child": a woman who has lost her child, murdered her child, had her child stolen or taken away from her. She may be a slave mother, a surrogate mother or a woman who refuses or is unable to bear children. These stories of mother without child look unflinchingly at the fear and inevitability of losing one's child that every mother, every parent, experiences. The mother without child undermines the categories into which women are often divided -- bad mother vs. good mother, or criminal vs. victim -- by fitting into neither or occupying both at the same time. Moreover, both "mother" and "child" are relational words, each defined only in relation to each other, and problematic to conceptualize because they mark a partial, shifting part of an individual identity. When this relational aspect of maternal identity is disrupted or thwarted, the meaning of motherhood is thrown into relief and our understanding can be expanded.

Housekeeping is one of the best of these pioneering tales of the mother without child. Set in the literal hinterland, the remote Mountain West, it explores the life at the borders between normal and abnormal, human and natural, reality and memory, living and dead. At first reading, it seems to be another daughter's story, the eloquent meditation of the inner child in all of us who is haunted by the missing mother. But the true center of value in Housekeeping lies in multiple stories and images of women who have lost their children, tenderly and respectfully told.

The ancestral mother without child in this novel is the narrator Ruth's grandmother, Sylvia Foster, who ironically is given two chances to mother. The perfect housekeeper, she surrounds her three daughters with "grace," with songs and cookies, roses and "starched sheets under layers of quilts." After her husband dies in the dramatic train wreck that opens the narrator's version of the story, her teenaged girls draw closer for a few years, cling to their mother and lull Sylvia into "forgetting what she should never have forgotten." Then suddenly, within six months, all three of her children leave home, never to return to their mother again.

Seven years later, one daughter comes home for the first and only time with her two children, Ruth and Lucille. She deposits them on their grandmother's porch and proceeds to drive the car into the same lake that swallowed her father's train. Sylvia as keeper of the "dear ordinary" cares for her granddaughters but can no longer ignore the futility of commonplace and urgent maternal work. She dreams of trying to catch a baby who falls from an airplane in her apron and using a tea strainer to fish a baby from a well.

After Sylvia dies, other major and minor figures -- all of them mothers without children, literally or figuratively -- appear, including in one chilling, important scene, Ruth, our narrator, herself. Guided to a place of epiphany by the ultimate surrogate mother, her drifter Aunt Sylvie, Ruth perceives the spirits of lost children, "cold, solitary children who almost breathed against my cheek and almost touched my hair." The power of the imagination is awakened by the partial presence of ghostly children, and the essence of everyday motherhood lies in loving what is just beyond our grasp, what we cannot possess, and what we know best when it is lost to us.

In response to many questions about the meanings of House-keeping, Robinson has said, "This book is not about reality." The figure of the mother without child in this and other recent novels by our finest women writers does not tell us how to mother. Real mothers can't experiment with alternative realities or even temporary vacations from maternal work; someone has to take care of the children.

All the more reason why we need fictions like Housekeeping to help us question both our assumptions about mothering and the moralists who refuse to do so. As Robinson has also said, "Art in a sense is occurring at the frontier of understanding because it integrates problems of experience and the ordering of experience. Other conversations are farther from the essence of things; they should listen rather than talk so much." We can be thankful that Marilynne Robinson takes us to the frontier and has so much to say to those who listen.

Elaine Tuttle Hansen, a medieval and Chaucer scholar, is the president of Bates College in Lewiston, Maine.

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