Book by MARILYNNE ROBINSON
“For a town, it wasn’t such a bad place,” observes Lila, a transient passing through Gilead, who ends up staying to marry an old widowed minister; she’s also the character for whom Marilynne Robinson has titled her most recent novel. Lila is Robinson’s third book to examine the lives and devotions of a small group of characters in this secluded Christian prairie town in Southwest Iowa. While each book is an independent work, shining on its own—Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005, and Home won the 2009 Orange Prize for Fiction and was a National Book Award finalist—the overlapping narratives weave a complex tapestry of the human experience as it relates to personal faith.
Once you’ve read all three books, it’s tempting to discuss them in reference to each other, but that’s somewhat misleading, since each is its own story, while sharing elements with the others. They are complementary rather than sequential, allowing Robinson to tell a vaster, more complicated narrative, one more accurately reflecting the subjective nature of entangled experiences.
Together, the books tell the complex, sad, sullied, beautiful, and old story of faith.
Gilead is a fictional place somewhere near where Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri intersect, based somewhat on the real town of Tabor, Iowa, which had a significant role in the abolition movement. Robinson introduced readers to Gilead in 2004 in her eponymous epistolary novel, set in 1956, in which Reverend John Ames, a 76-year old Congregationalist minister and the story’s narrator, chronicles the history of his town, his family and his faith in a long letter to his young son, Robby, the offspring of a late second marriage with the much younger, Lila. (In that book, Lila’s role is mostly peripheral.)
All three Gilead books are steeped in theology. Scripture moves through them like the wind moves across the prairie, sometimes in ripples and whispers, other times in sweeping gusts. The old man’s wise and tender voice distinguishes the first book from the others (which are written in close third-person) and is perhaps the finest quality ofGilead. Ames is a third-generation preacher. His father and grandfather, also named John Ames, were also preachers. “…and before that nobody knows, but I wouldn’t hesitate to guess,” writes Ames.
Gilead examines Ames’s inherited faith, complicated by the tensions between his father, a Christian pacifist, and his grandfather, a radical abolitionist. When he isn’t recounting history or musing on theology, Ames is measuring his own conscience, mostly with respect to the ungracious feelings he has toward Jack (John Ames) Boughton, his namesake; the son of his oldest and dearest friend; and the character at the center of the second book, Home (2008).
Home, which takes place over the same time period as Gilead, centers around Jack Boughton and his return to the Boughton family and Gilead, after two decades. Jack had impregnated and abandoned a poor farm girl, and the child died an early, impoverished death. In Gilead, Ames is struggling with his inability to forgive Jack’s past misdeeds and the jealous feelings he has about Jack’s relationship with Lila. The two have in common their hard lives and their struggle with faith. In Home, Jack is searching to make peace with his past and make a better person of himself. Jack is seeking to give his father’s faith, which he never did take to, another chance. He turns to Ames for counsel, but their exchanges, tainted as they are with each man’s insecurities and biases, are deeply pained.
Robinson, one of the finest writers of our time, has an exceptional talent for telling complex and emotionally heart-wrenching stories. She also has a habit of interjecting historic moral issues into the landscape of her works. In Gilead, her concern is abolitionist history; in Home, mid-century racial tensions. Jack has been separated from his African-American common-law wife and their child, due to segregationist laws in St. Louis. He has returned to Gilead, in part, to learn if he might make a home with them there.
Lila’s story is more concerned with poverty than racism. Lila, the vagrant woman, arrives in Gilead, meets and marries Reverend Ames and becomes pregnant with his child approximately eight years before the events of Gilead and Home, in the late 1940s. However, the novel lays out, through Lila’s perpetual reminiscing, her entire life story.
The novel opens with Lila’s earliest memory when, a toddler, she is put out one cold night on the stoop of the boarding house where she appears to reside because her crying annoys the adults within: “Shut that thing up or I’ll do it!” Doll, a drifter, takes pity on her and takes her away. She develops into the only mother-figure Lila ever remembers.
Much of the book details the long, hard, hungry years of Lila’s childhood as a migratory field hand; the shame of that existence; and her desperate loneliness. “Doll may have been the loneliest woman in the world, and she was the loneliest child, and there they were, the two of them together, keeping each other warm in the rain.”
The road of the vagrant is also familiar terrain to Robinson fans: In Housekeeping(1980), Robinson’s first novel and her only one prior to Gilead, another eccentric transient absconds with her niece for life on the road. In theme—the characters are different—Lila begins where Housekeeping left off, since the first novel concludes with the child’s abduction.
Lila and Doll suffer through the Depression and the Dustbowl. Doll, then an old woman, is imprisoned for murdering a man. Lila continues to roam and mourn for Doll. After a short but failed stint at prostitution, a few years in a rooming house on a maid’s wages, and more wandering, she comes upon an abandoned shack, outside Gilead:
…she wanted to stay in one place for a while. The loneliness was bad, but it was better than anything else she could think of. It was probably loneliness that made her walk the mile or so into town every few days just to look at the houses and stores and the flower gardens. She never meant to talk to anybody.
On one of these occasions, a Sunday, Lila gets caught in the rain, and ducks into Ames’s church to preserve the better of the two dresses she owns. His sermon lends her words and ideas she hadn’t previously had and leads to questions she couldn’t have previously conceived. As in Robinson’s other Gilead novels, theology plays an integral role, although Lila’s musings stem from a mind (and soul) schooled in hard knocks, not formal religion: “She wasn’t getting religion. She just wanted to know what he was talking about.”
The novel is, among other things, a love story recounting the unique courtship between two unlikely people attracted to each other’s sorrows. Ames’s first wife died in childbirth and his infant son followed shortly thereafter. He has been alone since. “He looked as if he had his share of loneliness, and that was all right. It was the one thing she understood about him.”
Lila struggles to reconcile her new world of comfort and security and her husband’s religious beliefs with the miserable existence she’s known. Her most vexing concern, as she explores the Bible and the teachings of Ames’s church, is the damnation of the unbaptized soul:
All those people out there walking the roads all those years, hardly a one of them remembering the Sabbath. Who would know what day of the week it was? Who wouldn’t take work when there was work to be done? What was the use of calling a day by a certain name, or thinking of it as anything but weather…. They knew it was morning when the sun came up. What more was there to know? If Doll was going to be lost forever, Lila wanted to be right there with her, holding the skirt of her dress.
Throughout the story, Lila puts her questions to Ames, but his answers are rarely satisfying. More often they lead to more questions. And he, with all the books and years of study at his disposal, is disappointed in his inability to tell her the answers she’s desperate to hear. “I know that I am not—adequate to the subject. You’ll have to forgive me,” he says, realizing that the life she’s lived doesn’t easily lend itself to the faith he inevitably always points to.
Lila has only been introduced to faith in mid-life—Ames baptizes her spontaneously in a field with water from a fish bucket. In comparison, her husband inherited his family’s religious convictions, and Jack Boughton rejected the faith of his father. With Lila, Robinson presents an experience of faith in counterpoint to the one delivered inGilead.
Lila’s lack of faith, in her new life, in God, in her husband, and herself is a continual threat. As she moves about Gilead, with her hand in the crook of her husband’s elbow, her old life continually beckons. Despite the extraordinary hardships of growing up homeless, there was comfort and joy in her companionship with Doll and the group they travelled with.
This threat functions as suspense in Lila—as if suspense were necessary to keep one turning pages. Robinson’s prose does that on its own, as in this phrase: “There was a feeling of something like injury about the earth smell and the dew smell, the leaf smell.”
There is also suspense in Lila’s struggles with church teachings and Old Testament beliefs that sit in judgment on the life that she lived out of necessity. This scene, for example, might imply that Lila is done with Christianity and Ames:
The river smelled like any river, fishy and mossy and shadowy, and the smell seemed stronger in the dark, with the chink and plosh of all the small life. She eased herself down to the edge of the water and put her hands in it. She took it up in her cupped hands, poured it over her brow, rubbed into into her face and hair… Nothing more to it. She thought, It has washed the baptism off me. So that’s done with. That must be what I wanted.
Yet, when Lila returns from the river, after washing off her baptism she informs Ames that she is pregnant and decides to settle into Gilead for the sake of her unborn child. “Now that there might be a child she’d best try to act like she belonged there, at least for a while.”
Suspense be damned: Readers of Gilead know how it ends. Ames, himself, has told us in the first book: Lila gives birth to young Robby. Then, in 1956, the aged preacher develops a heart condition, and Jack Boughton returns then, leaves again. And always, there lurks the threat of Lila leaving, too. So, we can imagine the Gilead stories continuing beyond the quiet conclusions of the books that have already been written. Once Lila collects its literary prizes (it’s perhaps the best of them yet, and it is a 2014 National Book Award Finalist) and settles in with Robinson’s other books, we can’t help but wonder if she will set a fourth book in Gilead.
When Lila compliments him on a story, Ames replies, “It is a story, isn’t it? I’ve never really thought of it that way. And I suppose the next time I tell it, it will be a better story. Maybe a little less true. I might not tell it again. I hope I won’t.”
Perhaps he won’t, but here’s hoping Robinson does. Let’s have faith.
Chantal Corcoran’s fiction has appeared in The Milo Review, Litro, Monkeybicycle, and Lost Magazine.