A week before Thanksgiving the National Book Award winners were announced. Previously I’d paid little attention to this event. Then I heard that Marilynne Robinson was being nominated for the year’s best work of fiction—her third nomination. So I was hoping the third time would be a charm. Sadly, Robinson was passed over again for an award she richly deserved. As luck or topicality would have it, the award went to a collection of short stories by a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
No disrespect to this year’s winner, but it goes to show that there should be no winners or losers in the realm of great writing. In my view, Robinson’s work goes beyond the scope of a National Book Award. Hers is Nobel Prize material.
I’d no idea of Marilynne Robinson when I bought a copy of Gilead in 2005. The title caught my eye. I wondered whether it referred somehow to the mysterious balm of Gilead mentioned in the Bible. Instead I was entranced by the voice of a country preacher, 77, with heart disease, writing a long letter to his seven-year-old son who would not grow up knowing him. This old man, Rev. Ames, had fallen in love with the boy’s mother when she appeared one rainy Sunday at the back of his small church. Here was the kind of literary figure considered impossible to make interesting: a sincerely good man. Even worse in terms of narrative challenge, he was a man of the cloth, with no checkered past, no addiction to booze, no action-packed city or frontier life to pepper the plot. Except that as a young man he’d lost his wife and son in childbirth and we find him after he’s spent 40-odd years a lonely widower. Ironically, his best friend, whom he has tried mightily—and at a crucial moment fails—not to envy, is a fellow preacher with a loving wife and eight children.
The most inspiring moment for me is when Ames tells his son how he fell in love with the boy’s mother, his much younger wife, who had stepped into his church simply to get out of the rain. She was a total stranger, and he didn’t even know if she was married. He admits that he flushed shamefully, lost track of what his sermon was about, and was only too well aware that he was doing everything in his power to hold this woman’s interest. If there is anything greater in modern literature about the mystery of love and the surrender of all pretense and dignity to the gaze of the beloved, I haven’t seen it. I wasn’t surprised when Robinson won a Pulitzer Prize for that novel.
Then came Home, set in the same place and time, but told from the perspective of a peripheral character in Gilead. This inimitable character is the youngest daughter of Rev. Boughton, Rev. Ames’ best friend, who—unlike her father—never passed judgment on her beloved youngest brother, Jack, the alcoholic black sheep of the family and godson of Rev. Ames.
Jack Boughton is a different kind of prodigal son. He comes home to the little town of Gilead no longer young, only to find that his father is frail and dying, and his godfather likewise. He’d been hoping to ask Rev. Ames to marry him and his common-law African American wife, whom he’d met after completing a ten-year prison sentence for a crime he had no memory of—perhaps it happened during a drunken black-out. He’d dared to hope that his wife and child might be accepted there, since the state, unlike its neighbors, had no anti-miscegenation laws. But he quickly finds that the community still holds him in deep suspicion, that his father cannot understand why the colored people have to riot in Birmingham and elsewhere (this is the fifties). And while he is there he gets a letter from the woman he loves, that seems to say she has succumbed to the wishes of her father—also a clergyman—to marry a black man who has promised to adopt the child she conceived with Jack.
Both Jack and Rev. Ames’ wife are present when the two old preachers discuss the topic of greatest torment to Jack: the religious doctrine of predestination—whether or not a person is doomed from birth to be destined for hell, no matter how mixed his or her life is with both selfish and goodhearted acts and intentions. The same conversation occurs in both Gilead and Home, and in both cases it is Mrs. Ames who ends it by declaring, “People can change.” In each case her words come as a shock, because she is a person of few words. All they know is that she arrived out of nowhere and that Rev. Ames loves her and respects her completely. If anything, she and Jack are almost equal in their isolation and outsider status. In fact, the only time we hear her name is when Jack says, “Thank you, Lila,” after she utters that resounding truth.
The high point of Home for me is the awkward, soulful talk Jack finally manages to have with Rev. Ames, when his godfather, who has long judged him as a disgrace to his family and his own name (he was baptized John Ames Boughton), sees that his seemingly ne’er-do-well namesake is actually a good man. He has given his whole heart to a good woman who loved him and bore him a son, whom he won’t be able to marry given the prejudice of society. They both have sons who will grow up not knowing them. Ames’ bitter disappointment in his godson is washed away in a flood of compassion and regret that he won’t live long enough to help Jack reconstitute his family. In that regard there will be no balm for them in Gilead. But there may be some when the reader pieces together the possibility that Jack was not doomed by God, but by the judgments of his own family and the secretly animosity of the man chosen to be his godfather. No wonder Rev. Ames longs to rechristen Jack as he leaves Gilead for a life of exile.
Lila is a novel written from Rev. Ames’ second wife’s point of view, and it is a masterpiece.
Why? Hard to say without sounding superficial. You see, this Lila is about as homeless as a person can be. She doesn’t know her real name, first or last. As a child she was stolen away from her natural family by a homeless woman called Doll who’d survived a near-fatal knife fight with a man. Doll may have done some housework for the girl’s family, or simply noticed that they had a daughter who’d been allowed to starve, whose legs were too spindly to walk on. Doll, by kidnapping her, saved the girl’s life, pulling her out from under the table where she slept in rags, carrying her away one night.
Over several years Doll had protected this girl, naming her Lila after the deceased aunt of a lady who’d let them stay with her while Doll nursed the child to passable health. Eventually they joined a small group of migrant workers, making their own campsites and sleeping out in the open or staying in occasional work camps, picking up whatever farming or other jobs they could find. For almost a year Doll took a job cleaning house so Lila could attend school and learn to read. With Doll and the others Lila learned the dignity of solitude, hard work, honesty, and not to trust anyone. In time the group disbanded, Doll got into another knife fight and this time killed her attacker, was badly cut herself, and probably went off somewhere to die. Lila was sent to work in St. Louis, unaware that the job was in a house of prostitution. It was after she’d left that place and went on the road by herself that she passed by the town of Gilead and stepped into Rev. Ames’ church to get out of the rain. She has no religion, no understanding of why people bother to go to church, and cannot understand why this kind old man (she does recognize that he is kind) would think twice about her.
What a love story. She can’t believe or trust Rev. Ames’ love, and wishes she could be free of her love for him. They can hardly talk to one another. Lila carries an ocean of sorrow and untold indignity and destitution within her. Yet she has built a ship of self-reliance and inner dignity on which to navigate it. She gives honest work for fair wages–cash or food–and when she feels overpaid out of charity she finds a way to work extra, unpaid. She catches her own fish and guts them with the knife she inherited from Doll. She washes her body and her clothes in streams. There is deep beauty in how she sees things. I’ll offer just one quote:
She liked to do her wash. Sometimes fish rose for the bubbles. The smell of the soap was a little sharp, like the smell of the river. In that water you could rinse things clean. It might be a little brown after a good rain, soil from the fields, but the silt washed away or settled out. Her shirts and her dress looked to her like creatures that never wanted to be born, the way they wilted into themselves, sinking under the water as if they only wanted to be left there, maybe to find some deeper, darker pool. And when she lifted them out, held them up by their shoulders, they looked like pure weariness and regret. Like her own flayed skin. But when she hung them over a line and let the water run out, and the sun and the wind dry them, they began to seem like things that could live. (p. 60)
Lila had been taught to walk past shop windows in towns, not to look inside, because Doll had told her not to want what she couldn’t have. She hated charity, and people’s pity. What she liked best about Rev. Ames was that he was well acquainted with loneliness. It was something they could share. Barely able to read, her vocabulary is modest, and she has to ask Ames what he means by “existence.” She quickly understands that it is something she knows from the ground up.
I could go on, but words are failing. Read Lila. It’ll give you a whole new dimension of the art of paying attention.