What does it mean to come home?
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Recently, I read the Marilynne Robinson trilogy that begins with Gilead (2004), continues with Home (2008) and concludes with Lila (2014). I don’t think I have read a finer suite of novels.  Collectively, in an undemonstrative fashion, they constitute an interrogation of America as a home, and of the obligations of religious belief in a society in which social justice and the care of others is not guaranteed for all.  The novels are set in the quiet and conservative rural America of the early 1950s, yet there’s an undertow of a country divided by race and prejudice.

Gilead cover

In Gilead, it’s 1956 and John Ames, a Congregationalist minister of the eponymous community in Iowa, is writing a journal for his young son to read after his death.  Ames is in his seventies, and his heart is failing.  He married to a much younger second wife, Lila, who has borne him a son, now seven years. In each daily epistle he recounts stories from the past – of his father and grandfather, both of them also ministers of the church. Alongside, he documents his strained relationship with Jack Boughton, the son of his best friend, given Ames’s name as a baby, and regarded almost as a surrogate child, a compensation for the loss of his own first wife and daughter. Ames has experienced intense loneliness, while his relationship with Jack has soured as a consequence of the younger man’s past indiscretion, his abandonment of his father and family for twenty years, and by Jack’s religious doubts. Now Jack has come home to Gilead to visit his dying father, and Ames is troubled by the resentment he feels toward the younger man: the trail of damage he left behind when he walked out of Gilead, and the jealousy he feels as Jack becomes friendly with Lila.


John Vander Stelt, Rembrandt, Iowa, 1995

Woven into Ames’s diary of current happenings in Gilead – ‘the kind of town where dogs slept in the road’ – is the story he tells his son of how, before the Civil War, Iowa was a frontier free state, settled both by abolitionists and those who fought to preserve slavery.  The state became a crucial destination for runaway slaves being moved out along the underground railroad to freedom in the North. Ames’s grandfather, minister in Gilead in those days, became deeply involved in the abolitionist cause whose great leader was John Brown, given sanctuary and support many times in Iowa during the armed, insurrectionist campaign for abolition that was a harbinger of the civil war. Ames’s grandfather was one of those who sheltered John Brown and his followers, and who took up arms himself.

John Ames recalls his childhood impression of his grandfather, a man who seemed:

Stricken and afflicted, and indeed he was, like a man everlastingly struck by lightning, so that there was an ashiness about his clothes and his hair never settled and his eye had a look of tragic alarm when he wasn’t actually sleeping. He was the most unreposeful human being I ever knew.

Thinking back to his grandfather’s times a century earlier, Ames envisions the hard-scrabble communities that established themselves on the plains, ‘set up in the heat of an old urgency that is all forgotten now’:

We became like the people without the Law, people who didn’t know their right hand from their left. Just stranded here. A stranger might ask why there is a town here at all. Our own children might ask. And who could answer them? It was just a dogged little outpost in the sand hills, within striking distance of Kansas. That’s really all it was meant to be. It was a place John Brown and Jim Lane could fall back on when they needed to heal and rest. There must have been a hundred towns like it, set up in the heat of an old urgency that is all forgotten now, and their littleness and their shabbiness, which was the measure of the courage and passion that went into the making of them, now just look awkward and provincial and ridiculous, even to the people who have lived here long enough to know better.

By the time Ames knew him, his abolitionist grandfather was a man bitter with the disappointment of the false peace of reconstruction and the injustices of Jim Crow:

My grandfather told me once about a vision he’d had when he was still living in Maine, not yet sixteen. He had fallen asleep by the fire, worn out from a day helping his father pull stumps. Someone touched him on the shoulder, and when he looked up, there was the Lord, holding out His arms to him, which were bound in chains. My grandfather said, ‘Those irons had rankled right down to His bones.’ He told me that as the saddest fact, and eyed me with the one seraph eye he had, the old grief fresh in it. He said he knew then that he had to come to Kansas and make himself useful to the cause of abolition. To be useful was the best thing the old men ever hoped for themselves, and to be aimless was their worst fear. I have a lot of respect for that view. When I spoke to my father about the vision he had described to me, my father just nodded and said, ‘It was the times.’ He himself never claimed any such experience, and he seemed to want to assure me I need not fear that the Lord would come to me with His sorrows. And I took comfort in the assurance. That is a remarkable thing to consider.

At the end of the novel, Jack Boughton makes to Ames a confession he can’t make to his own father – that he has a son by a coloured girl he loves but whom he has been unable to marry. There is a reconciliation, and Ames blesses Jack before he leaves the township once again. Both men know that in 1957 a mixed-race family could not hope for peace or security in Gilead. He is forced to acknowledge his own failure to defend racial and social justice.

The final sentence that John Ames writes in his journal is: ‘I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep.’  In an in-depth discussion of the trilogy written for the Guardian, Sarah Churchwell commented on the significance of ‘these  valedictory words’, noting that they come from King Lear:

As he and the Fool seek shelter from the raging storm, Lear discovers compassion for the ‘houseless poverty’ of people like Poor Tom. This sentence marks Lear’s great shift into a moral accountability based on care: he was supposed to safeguard the ‘poor naked wretches / That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm.’ ‘Oh,’ Lear realises, ‘I have ta’en / Too little care of this!’ […] Ames, like Lear, has taken too little care; he has failed to be his brother’s keeper. This acknowledgment detonates an irony that reverberates back through the whole novel, for Ames is well intentioned, gentle, benign, but he proves far more unreliable than we thought.

Before I opened this book I was not sure that letters written by a devout Calvinist minister and full of theological questioning would be to my taste.  But all three of these novels are exquisitely written, Robinson’s measured prose drawing you deep into the lives and thoughts of her  protagonists and the landscape which they inhabit. In one of the most memorable passages in Gilead, John Ames recalls the time when he was a small boy and his father took him deep into the wild and lost parts of Kansas, searching for his grandfather’s grave. There are passages of great tenderness, too, in which the old man records the unexpected pleasure and companionship of his late marriage:

Just now I was listening to a song on the radio, standing there swaying to it a little, I guess, because your mother saw me from the hallway and she said, ‘I could show you how to do that.’ She came and put her arms around me and put her head on my shoulder, and after a while she said, in the gentlest voice you could ever imagine, ‘Why’d you have to be so damn old?’ I ask myself the same question.

Who is this young girl, Lila, with whom he has found this late and unexpected happiness? It would be ten years before Robinson gave us her answer to this question, in Lila.

Home cover

Home is less a sequel to Gilead than a parallel inquisition of the same events as the earlier novel, seen from the perspective of members of the Boughton family. In Home we see Jack Boughton’s story from the point of view of his younger sister, Glory.  While she has returned  reluctantly to Gilead to care for her dying father, a Presbyterian minister, and John Ames’s best friend, her brother Jack returns for reasons that he will only hint at with his sister and his father; he seems ‘a stranger unsure of his welcome’, running from despair and disappointment in St Louis. Glory, too, has returned to the family home with hopes dashed, humiliated by a man to whom she thought she was engaged, but who turned out to be married.

To begin with, sister and brother negotiate around each other with caution and suspicion. Glory is suspicious of Jack’s motives, and angry and resentful about his past indiscretions. For me, Robinson’s greatest achievement in Home is the way in which she conveys, through the sharpness of her observation and the delicacy of her writing, how in their conversation the siblings slowly and tentatively begin to rebuild mutual trust and love.

Readers of Gilead already know that, in his youth, Jack Boughton brought nothing but trouble to his family. He was a thief and ne’er-do-well, whose greatest disgrace was getting a teenage girl from a poverty-stricken home pregnant, then abandoning her and the child.  They also know that during the twenty years he has been away, Jack met a black woman and had a child with her. He wanted to marry her, but the woman’s father – also a minister – forbade it. His return to Gilead is partly to see if the town might be a suitable home for a mixed-race family. In 1956, there are ‘no coloured people in Gilead’, though there were once, before their church was burned, and they departed.

At the heart of the novel is a discussion between the two ministers, old Boughton and John Ames, on the question of predestination. The topic is raised by Jack, who asks, ‘Do you think some people are intentionally and irretrievably consigned to perdition?’ As the son of a minister, Jack is well-versed in the theological niceties; his challenge is not simply a reflection of his scepticism, but an attempt to probe the soundness of the theology of his father and Ames concerning those regarded by the god-fearing as beyond redemption.  Towards the end of their talk Ames’s young wife Lila throws a wild card into the conversation: ‘What about being saved?’ she asks.  The old men ponder ‘how the mystery of predestination could be reconciled with the mystery of salvation’. Lila makes a simple statement: ‘A person can change.  Everything can change’.

Lila’s interjections hint at a past life largely unknown to her ageing husband. This young woman simply appeared one day in Gilead, having lived for a time previously in St Louis. She is unread, and churches and religion are a mystery to her. He – we, the readers – know little more than that.  We will discover much more in the final volume of the trilogy.

‘Everything can change’: the discussion that Jack initiated has been preceded by exchanges about events appearing nightly on the television news. These are the days of the Montgomery bus boycott and of Autherine Lucy’s attempt to be the first African-American student admitted to the University of Alabama. Jack kicks things off by quoting a magazine article which states that ‘the seriousness of American Christianity was called into question by our treatment of the Negro.’ Jack adds: ‘I have lived in places where there are Negro people.  They are very fine Christians, many of them’. To which the Reverend Boughton responds, ‘Then we can’t have done so badly by them, can we? That is the essential thing.’

Jack looked at him, and then he laughed. ‘I’d say we’ve done pretty badly.  Especially by Christian standards. As I understand them.

Reviewing the book for the New York Times, AO Scott commented on the apparent failure of two learned and serious ministers to hear the plain, earnest intent of Jack’s questioning in this passage:

But it is also the sign of something larger. Home and Gilead are marvellous novels about family, friendship and ageing. But they are great novels – or perhaps two instalments in a single, as yet unfinished great novel – about race and religion in American life.

Scott links this analysis to essays in which Robinson has defended the Puritan intellectual and ethical tradition against ‘the usual charges of intolerance and prudery’, instead finding a tradition ‘devoted to social justice, universal education and a chastening knowledge of human fallibility’.  She has spoken (for example, in the YouTube interview below) about the connection between this tradition and the abolitionist movement, associated with towns like Gilead, founded by militants fighting the spread of slavery (and a key theme in Gilead).

Time passes, and in 1956, the problem of race (or, the problem of the United States) seems remote to those who reside in Gilead – though not to Jack Boughton. But the TV news brings events into the Boughton house, like the scenes in Montgomery, Alabama: ‘On the screen white police with riot sticks were pushing and dragging black demonstrators. There were dogs.’ Jack’s father is unmoved: ‘In six months nobody will remember one thing about it,’ he says. On another occasion, they watch as a black woman attempts to enrol at the University of Alabama. His father declares that, although he ‘has nothing against the coloured people’, ‘they appear to me to be creating problems and obstacles for themselves with all this – commotion. There’s no reason for all this trouble. They bring it on themselves.’

Home is, as I’ve said, a beautifully observed and exquisitely written book concerned with the ties that bind a family close and make a home – but also with those things that can tear them apart. There are innumerable passages of crafted prose, evoking the tentative and tender words and gestures of brother and sister, or painting the Idaho landscape, such as this one, in which Glory wakens to a new day in Gilead:

The heat of the morning woke her, so she knew she had slept late. There were no sounds in the house, there was no smell of coffee. Jack and her father must still be sleeping. […] She went down the stairs as quietly
as she could and let herself out the door.

And here is the world, she thought, just as we left it. A hot white sky and a soft wind, a murmur among the trees, the treble rasp of a few cicadas. There were acorns in the road, some of them broken by passing cars. Chrysanthemums were coming into bloom. Yellowing squash vines swamped the vegetable gardens and tomato plants hung from their stakes, depleted with bearing. Another summer in Gilead. Gilead, dreaming out its curse of sameness, somnolence. How could anyone want to live here? That was the question they asked one another, out of their father’s hearing, when they came back from college, or from the world. Why would anyone stay here? […]

Home.  What kinder place could there be on earth, and why did it seem to them all like exile?

Lila cover

In her latest book, Lila, Marilynne Robinson offers a kind of prequel to the other two books, one that deepens her exploration of what it entails to be ‘mindful of the needs of others’ as John Ames expresses it in Home.  The novel also fills out the character and back-story of Lila – a rather shadowy figure in the earlier books – telling of her appearance in Gilead some seven years earlier, her deepening relationship with the elderly preacher John Ames, and their strange, unexpected marriage.  It’s a book in which time can shift from one sentence to the next as we are taken into Lila’s thoughts, and her memories of a childhood of total deprivation during the Depression.

I was rather taken aback by Robinson’s portrait of Lila here: reading the earlier books I had not imagined her as having a background of such privation, so feral, untaught, and beyond the margins of society. In fact, her recollections of her childhood – rescued from an abusive family by Doll, a member of band of  homeless itinerants who barely survive by taking work where they find it, but otherwise avoiding all contact with those who live in houses – brought to mind Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalypse novel, The Road. She even lacks a proper name.  She says to Ames at one point, ‘I’ve been tramping around with the heathens. They’re just as good as anybody, so far as I can see.  They sure don’t deserve no hellfire.’

What kind of a book is Lila?  It’s hard to give a short answer to that question. Reviewing Lila in the New York Review of Books, Cathleen Schine captured its strange other-worldliness in her opening sentence, describing it as ‘a deeply romantic love story embodied in the language and ideas of Calvinist doctrine’.

That certainly pins down two of the central elements of this novel.  Firstly, the tenderness of the growing love between the dignified preacher, who has lived alone for decades since the death of his first wife and child, and the young woman who appears out of nowhere, untaught, intense, as strong-willed and as unconstrained as the wind. They are drawn fiercely to each other, yet, at the same time, ‘when you’re scalded, touch hurts’.

He looked as if he’d had his share of loneliness, and that was all right. It was one thing she understood about him.

The intensity of their love is delineated by Robinson in a scene near the end of Lila’s pregnancy as a blizzard rages and the couple retreat to their warmth of their bed to wait for the storm to pass.  They fall asleep, only waking after dark:

When she stirred, the old man sat up out of the covers. ‘Night!’ he said.  ‘Well, I guess the wind has died down.  We slept through supper.  How are you feeling?  Can I get you a sandwich?’  He fumbled for his glasses.  It always took him a minute to collect himself.  That’s what he would say. Let me collect myself. Give me a minute here.  Everything seemed strange when she thought about it. Where had he been?  Nowhere at all, even lying there beside her.  His hair was all pushed to one side, that longer hair that was meant to hide his baldness a little.  He looked as though he had waked out of a dream, or into one, that made him feel he had to do something important and couldn’t take the time to figure out what it was.

‘You,’ she said.

He laughed, ‘Who else?’

She said, ‘Nobody else in this world’.

Then, as in the earlier Gilead novels, there are the urgent discussions about theological questions; as Cathleen Schine observes:

Robinson poses doctrinal questions about predestination and grace, about the afterlife and who will be there and who will not, serious questions only for the sincerest of believers, yet they become serious in Robinson’s telling for the rest of us as well. Perhaps Robinson is able to write so powerfully and engagingly about religion, even for the non-religious, even now when the discussion of religion has become so debased by fiery fundamentalism on the one hand and fiery atheism on the other, because she writes about questions rather than answers. Even her preachers do not preach so much as wonder.

In Lila, a good deal of this questioning of religious verities comes as Lila debates in her mind the meaning of the Old Testament texts that she has begun to read, probing for the key to understanding her experience as an outsider, seeking whatever solace, if any, such writings may offer to those she has known in the past – people who, like her have known only poverty and suffering. Can they hope for grace?

What we see is that there is no necessity for Lila to turn to the Bible for guidance on how to live and  care for others.  Half way through the book there is a scene of great intensity in which Lila has returned to the isolated, broken-down shack where she holed up for the first days or weeks that she was in Gilead.  Pausing for a while, sitting on the stoop in the sunshine, she suddenly notices a boy standing some distance away, watching her.  He edges closer and they begin to talk. He is one of that tribe she would encounter in the Depression years, ‘the ones who never touched a comb to their hair and who always had shadows of grimne on their necks and wore unmended clothes till they were falling off them’. Lila encourages him to spend the night in the shack; the next day she will bring clothes and food.  But there are misunderstandings and, as winter snow and bitter cold arrives, he disappears.

In the YouTube video below, the interviewer quotes from a book of essays by Marilyn Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books, in which she wrote that, ‘the language of public life has lost the character of generosity,’ and that, ‘the largeness of spirit that has created and supported the best of our institutions and brought reform to the worst of them has been erased out of historical memory.’  It is that ‘largeness of spirit’ that Lila exemplifies.  In his Telegraph review, Sameer Rahim wrote:

The story of a fallen woman saved by a preacher could easily descend into sanctimonious cliché. What transforms the tale is Robinson’s alertness to the subtleties of human relationships. It also helps that as well as being a great novelist, Robinson is a sophisticated religious thinker who asks searching questions of her Christian faith.

The book ends with a baby being safely delivered to John Ames and Lila – he will grow to be the young boy of Gilead.  In her thoughts, Lila recalls the wandering band to which she once belonged – ‘the people no one would miss, who had done no special harm, who just lived and died as well as they could manage.’  She thinks:

So it couldn’t matter much how life seemed.  The old man always said we should attend to the things we have some hope of understanding, and eternity isn’t one of them.  Well, this world isn’t one either.  Most of the time she thought she understood things better when she didn’t try. Things happen the way they do. Why was a foolish question.

There were moments, reading Lila, when I was reminded of Terrence Malick’s mysterious, mystical film, The Tree of Life, also concerned with metaphysical questions. The book ends like this:

That’s how it is.  Lila had borne a child into a world that where a wind could rise that would take him from her arms as if there were no strength in them at all.  Pity us, yes, but we are brave, she thought, and wild, more life in us than we can bear, the fire infolding itself in us.  That peace could only be amazement, too.

Well, for now there were geraniums in the windows, and an old man at the kitchen table telling his baby some rhyme he’d known forever, probably still wondering if he had managed to bring her along into that next life, if he could ever be certain of it.  Almost letting himself imagine grieving for her in heaven, because not to grieve for her would mean he was dead, after all.

Someday she would tell him what she knew.

Marilynne Robinson
Marilynne Robinson

Together, these three exquisite books interrogate the religious certainties that are claimed as defining America. Robinson places at the centre of her narrative the obligations of religious belief which she suggests have been abandoned by a society in which social justice and the care of others is not guaranteed for all. As Cathleen Schine observed in her review of Lila, Robinson ‘really is not like any other writer. She really isn’t.’

Marilynne Robinson on Faith, Capitalism and Democracy

Paintings of Iowa’s Underground Railroad, by Ben Shattuck

I stumbled across paintings by Ben Shattuck of sites that were once stations along the Underground Railroad in Iowa.  This video and another also on YouTube describe the background to Shattuck’s project, Remnants of Iowa’s Underground Railroad, and evoke scenes in Marilyn Robinson’s Gilead.

See also

4 thoughts on “Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy

  1. Can I say thank you for alerting me to this suite of books, but more importantly to the author. I struggle to remember a novel touching me as much as Gilead when I first read it. I’ve finished the trilogy and have now turned my attention to her non fiction. It feels ironic to have discovered a writer with this much integrity when we are embarking on the election merry go round?

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