“Gilead was the kind of town where dogs slept in the road for the sun and the warmth that lingered after the sun was gone, and the few cars that there were had to stop and honk until the dogs decided to get up and let them pass by. They’d go limping off to the side, lamed by the comfort they’d had to give up, and then they’d settle down again right where they were before. It really wasn’t much of a town.”
This is the setting for Robinson’s Iowa trilogy, three novels that span a century of our history. Gilead (2004), Home (2008) and Lila, Robinson’s new book, center on the lives of two ministers—John Ames and Robert Boughton—and their families. Much of the narrative is set during the 1950s, but it also harks back to the 1850s and some of the years in between. In many ways, this is a quintessentially American story: set in the deepest Midwest, peopled by humble characters, centered on family, driven by hope. The Great Plains are at the heart of the American foundation myth of Manifest Destiny, which declared our God-given entitlement to this fertile terrain. This land was our land, so we were told. Agriculture would be our connection to the landscape and to prosperity. Here, our souls could take root and our lives flourish.
Gilead is a safe, domesticated place where people work in their gardens and hang out their wash. Children swing in the backyard and swim in the river. The Rev. John Ames, who has trouble sleeping, often walks alone through the moonlight to his small church, where he sits in the darkness, waiting for dawn. There is no sense of physical danger here; the most powerful conflicts are intellectual, emotional and moral.
Violent conflict was a part of the region’s past, however, and it figures prominently in the Ames family’s history. Just before the Civil War, Kansas was a territory poised on the brink of statehood, and the question of whether it should be a free or slave state became an incendiary one. “Free Soilers” flocked there to oppose slavery, and the small towns of Iowa became unofficial garrisons for the combatants and stations on the Underground Railroad. Armed militias roamed the countryside, and the mild, arable landscape became a bloody proving ground. Ames’s wild and visionary grandfather moved in the 1830s from Maine to Kansas, where he shot a man during the “Free Soil” period, despite being a minister. His son John, also a minister but a devout pacifist, was unable to reconcile himself to the actions of his father. John’s son Edward (our John’s brother) is unable to reconcile his religious views with those of his father: conflict between generations is prominent throughout the trilogy.
Gilead is largely the story of the third Rev. Ames, a gentle, thoughtful and devout Congregationalist minister. He lost both his wife and daughter during childbirth, early in his first marriage, and lived for years as a widower. In his late 60s, he marries a younger woman named Lila, and unexpectedly they have a child. Gilead is Ames’s letter to their 6-year-old son, whose adulthood he assumes he won’t live to see. (The letter is to be read after Ames’s death.) Ames reveals himself to be an archetypal loving father, the one we long for: tolerant, wise and patient. He sees the world through a lens of humility and gratitude. He is grateful for his beautiful young wife and for his son. He is grateful for the tangible beauty of the physical world and the deep, intangible beauty of the human heart. He is grateful for his vocation, for the opportunity to give his life to the consideration of the spirit. He strives to be worthy of the grace of God, whom he knows as compassionate, tender and loving.
Ames’s best friend and intellectual sparring partner is Robert Boughton, a Presbyterian minister, and his family’s story is told in Home. Boughton’s youngest son, Jack (Ames’s namesake), is the black sheep of the family, the one who’s always gotten into trouble. As a young man, he impregnates and then abandons a girl from a poor family. The child lives in rural squalor with her mother, who refuses help from the Boughtons. When the child dies from an infected foot, the rest of his family is devastated, but Jack has left Gilead. Twenty years later, he returns. He is still silent and distant, unreliable and impecunious. He’s now in love with a black woman, though he’s forbidden to marry her, by law and by her father.
Lila is the story of Ames’s young wife. If Gilead represents stability, stillness and peace, Lila has weathered its polar opposite: itinerancy, uncertainty and risk. As a young child, she was abandoned by her parents and left in a wretched boarding house. Neglected, Lila contracted an ominous sore on her foot that wouldn’t heal, like Jack’s poor doomed daughter. But her life is saved when she is rescued by an itinerant worker, a woman named Doll, and Lila grows up on the move. The two walk from farm to farm, working in fields and orchards and backyards during the Depression. When times change and the verdant prairies become the Dust Bowl, even frugal, inventive, hardworking Doll can’t sustain their shared life. This fragile construct is finally shattered when Doll’s old crime—the theft of the child—has devastating consequences. Afterward, Lila, alone and nearing 40, arrives on foot in Gilead. She moves into an abandoned cabin on the outskirts of town and looks for yard work. One day, during a rainstorm, she takes shelter in a church.
The handsome Rev. Ames, “a big silvery old man,” is baptizing two infants, taking “each one of those little babies in his arms as gently as could be.” Lila watches him. She is a raw-boned countrywoman—“she knew what she looked like, with her big hands and her rangy arms, and her face that had been burned a hundred times, more, and her scorched hair and her eyes the sun had faded.” But Ames feels Lila’s searching, attentive gaze on him, and looks up and meets her eyes. So begins their story.
* * *
Robinson’s writing is striking in its simplicity and grace. Each word seems true and necessary. Here is her description of Doll rescuing Lila:
She settled the child on her hip and carried her into the dark house, stepping as carefully and quietly as she could, and found the bundle she kept in her corner, and then they went out into the chilly dark again, down the steps. The house was rank with sleep and the night was windy, full of tree sounds. The moon was gone and there was rain, so fine then it was only a tingle on the skin. The child was four or five, long-legged, and Doll couldn’t keep her covered up, but she chafed at her calves with her big, rough hand and brushed the damp from her cheek and her hair.
Robinson’s choice of homely details allows us a deep sense of intimacy with the subject. We know the terrain through the image of those sleepy dogs in the street. We know the weather through the sensuous details of moon and rain and wind. We know these characters because of the ways in which they move and speak, what they do and think, even what they wear:
They made her a couple of dresses out of flour sacks with holes cut in them for her head and arms. They were stiff at first and smelled of being saved in a chest or a cupboard, and they had little flowers all over them, like Doll’s apron.
Robinson’s presence within her narrative is compassionate and knowing; she inhabits her characters fully. Like God, she loves and understands each of them; she loves and understands each facet of this world she writes about.
In fact, God is a powerful presence in these books. The style itself suggests his presence: the sentences are sonorous, the tone quiet and meditative. At times they sound as though they might be translations from archaic writings. This is not coincidence: Robinson draws deeply on ancient texts, most frequently on Scripture. Her fiction offers a quiet evocation of biblical prose, and each book contains frequent and intimate references to the study of Christianity. Gilead, which partly chronicles Jack Boughton’s long-awaited return, refers to the Prodigal Son, and Home to Psalm 78, in which the Lord recounts the sins of the children of Israel. “I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings of old, which we have heard and known, and our fathers have told us.”
The plot of Lila is loosely based on Ezekiel and a parable of Jerusalem’s sin. God finds Jerusalem as a helpless infant, abandoned to die. “In the day thou wast born thy navel was not cut, neither wast thou washed in water to cleanse thee…. No eye pitied thee, to do any of these things unto thee, to have compassion upon thee; but thou wast cast out in the open field, for that thy person was abhorred…. I passed by thee, and saw thee weltering in thy blood.” God finds the infant Jerusalem and saves her life by rescuing and cherishing her. He raises her into a beautiful young woman and bedecks her with jewels and finery. She becomes a flamboyant whore who betrays him publicly and frequently, but the Lord forgives her and makes an everlasting covenant with her.
This story of Jerusalem appears in the narrative after Lila steals a Bible from Ames’s church and begins to read it alone in her cabin. Lila is uneducated, except for one year of school in which she learned to read. But she’s intelligent and ready to puzzle over philosophical questions. Her first conversation with Ames concerns a question of theology. “I just been wondering lately why things happen the way they do,” she tells him. Lila is asking about one of the most fundamental issues of Christianity: How can a compassionate and all-powerful God allow humans to suffer?
* * *
Marilynne Robinson’s novels are beautifully rendered works of realism, which is perhaps our most distinguished literary genre. They are intellectually complex and emotionally compelling. Miraculously, they also manage to be accessible, popular and commercially successful. So in many ways Robinson is a mainstream author, but in others she is in direct opposition to the traditions of Anglo-American literature.
Despite our various personal and political commitments to religion, when it comes to literature we have become a decidedly secular nation. The presence of religious doctrine, or Scripture, or theology, in mainstream fiction is scant. Religion seems directly at variance with the skeptical, rational, pragmatic realism that dominates our literary tradition. Whatever question the novel poses, God is not the answer.
In Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Ramsay muses, with conventional piety, “We are in the hands of the Lord. But instantly she was annoyed with herself…she had been trapped into saying something she did not mean…. The insincerity…roused her, annoyed her.” Now she wants to purify that lie “out of existence” and goes on to think, “How could any Lord have made this world?… there is no reason, order, justice: but suffering, death, the poor. There was no treachery too base for the world to commit; she knew that.” Mrs. Ramsay’s calm pronouncement affirms that it is possible to love the world, and the people in it, without a belief in God.
How would religion enter into fiction anyway? Certainly, God has no place in character-driven fiction: If God is actually in charge, then how can character determine plot? The narrative will be contrived and predictable. The phrase “deus ex machina” refers to something outside the bounds of possibility, a development that drains the plot of its psychological realism. God has been mostly absent from our literary fiction.
Marilynne Robinson changes this. She makes an overt claim for a philosophical connection between literature and religion in her collection When I Was a Child I Read Books (2012). In the first essay, “Freedom of Thought,” Robinson writes that the two concepts “seem to have come into being together, if by literature I can be understood to include pre-literature, narrative whose purpose is to put human life, causality, and meaning in relation, to make each of them in some degree intelligible in terms of the other.”
Robinson’s intention seems to be to make human life and meaning intelligible each in terms of the other. For the characters in her fiction, religious faith is a part of meaning, part of leading an examined life. Faith doesn’t eliminate human problems—fear and confusion, pain and loss—but it can alleviate them. And human existence is expanded by the idea of grace, by a sense of trust in God’s presence and gratitude for the mortal loveliness of the world. Grace illuminates these books, and so does a sense of inquiry, of intellectual questing. Ames and Boughton carry on a long spiritual conversation that enhances and enlarges life but doesn’t limit it. God is present here, but he doesn’t supersede the natural order of things nor control the plot of these books. Robinson makes the claim that religion may play an important intellectual and spiritual part of the human narrative, without opposing our notion of great literature.
Lila tells the story of the force of recognition that connects Ames and Lila—he full of faith and conviction, she full of wariness and suspicion. Neither of them has any expectations for themselves: Ames is too old and humble, Lila too rough and distrustful, to hope for love or marriage. Their approach toward each other is slow and awkward, full of missteps.
One day, Ames finds Lila weeding his garden, unasked:
He said, “You have done so much. It looks wonderful. I would like to give you something for it.” He had his wallet in one hand, his hat in the other.
She said, “I owe you a kindness.”
“No,” he said. “No. You certainly don’t owe me anything.”
“I best decide that,” she said.
Robinson’s ear is flawless. The cadence of the dialogue, the gentle minister’s educated speech, the countrywoman’s plain talk, adds to the sense of the deep authenticity of these characters. They disagree on moral grounds, on the notion of obligation: each wishes to be the benefactor of the other.
A castaway and a drifter, Lila has learned to be self-reliant and mistrustful. For protection, she carries a small knife inherited from Doll. She feels herself to be sinful (she once worked in a whorehouse in St. Louis, though perhaps not as a whore), and she knows herself to be wary, ready to bolt. But she is drawn to Ames’s gentleness and understanding; he is a match for her wariness, and he understands her loneliness. When he sees Lila standing in the back of his church on that rainy day, he is stirred by her wordless presence. He recognizes her value as a human being, despite her roughness.
Once, when a wild bird blunders into his house, flapping and frantic, Ames helps it to find its way out. Afterward, he says: “It left a blessing in the house…. The wildness of it. Bringing the wind inside.”
Robinson’s novels function powerfully as fiction because they too bring the wind inside. They pose not only the deep questions of love and trust that lie between people and God, but those same questions that lie between humans and form the scaffolding of their relations. The Bible is, of course, full of such questions, and the stories that result from them. Robinson continues the tradition of making faith a part of the human narrative, and she makes spiritual questioning a part of the examined life. But the quiet drama of these books comes from the tides of human emotion—joy and fear and tenderness, grief and jealousy and pain and trust—that surge and roil between people. They are the same tides of feeling in the great literature of every era.
If the question posed by the novel is “What is it to be human?”, Robinson responds to it with elegance and precision. Her answer continues the distinguished American intellectual tradition of philosophical questioning; it contains as well a compassionate examination of the emotional lives of her characters. These characters are quiet, modest but deeply engaged, and they are familiar to us. Even if we are not all from deepest Iowa, even if we are not all the children of ministers, we can all take pride in the story of these lives: it is part of our own history.