Review 1763: Jack

Jack tells more fully the story of Jack Boughton, whose tale was first alluded to in Robinson’s Gilead and whose fate was more fully explored in Home, which takes place chronologically after Jack. Jack is the hapless ne’er-do-well prodigal son in Home, but Jack explores his relationship with Della Miles, a romance with a young black woman that is forbidden in 1950’s Missouri.

Jack is living in St. Louis at the beginning of the novel, just barely hanging on to the fringes of society. He is drunk part of the time and owes money that he can’t repay. He is fresh out of jail and living in a cheerless rooming house.

He has already met Della at the beginning of the novel and has fallen instantly in love with her, but he is minutely aware of himself and his unsuitability. She is a young woman, educated, a schoolteacher, and she is black. It’s against the law for him to consort with her, and just being seen with him will ruin her reputation. For his part, he’s an older man, an ex-con, a bum.

Della gets accidentally locked in a cemetery one night where he sometimes sleeps. So, the first part of the novel is a long conversation at night.

Robinson is finely tuned to the condition of the human heart, as becomes obvious as we watch Jack, overly sensitive to every nuance of a situation. True to his upbringing by a devout Presbyterian minister, Jack frequently engages in theological discussions odd for an atheist. We watch Jack try to defeat his feelings for the sake of his beloved and fear that any small disappointment will send him on a downward spiral, for he is so fragile.

Robinson is a wonderful writer with a deep understanding of human nature. Although these Gilead books can be difficult, they are rewarding.

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Day 671: Lila

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In Lila, wonderful writer Marilynne Robinson returns to the small Iowa town of Gilead, the setting of her previous novels Gilead and Home. In these novels Lila Ames is not much of a presence. She is referred to as the surprising choice of a wife for the elderly, gentle, and educated pastor John Ames—much younger, rough, and uneducated.

Lila has lived almost her entire life on the tramp, ever since Doll stole her away, a neglected, starving, feverish little mite who lived mostly under the table or was locked out of the house. Doll and Lila joined up with a group of travelers lead by Doane, wandering from job to job, and life was just fine until the long, dark days of the Depression and the Dust Bowl. Years later, Lila has stopped outside Gilead and is living in a shack, walking to nearby farms and houses and asking for work.

Lila knows nothing about religion, but on occasion she has been curious about it and was warned away by Doane, who claims all preachers are charlatans. So, one day she ventures into the church. There she sees and is drawn to John Ames, and he to her. Eventually, they marry.

The action of this novel is mostly interior. Lila is tormented by some of the memories of her previous life and feels unworthy of Ames. She is afraid that he may ask her to leave at any minute. All the same, she occasionally wants to return to the freedom of her old life.

Ames, on the other hand, is happy to have Lila’s company, for he has lived alone ever since the death of his wife in childbirth, years ago. He is afraid she will decide to leave him one day.

As with Gilead and Home, this is a quiet novel, characterized by religious discussions as Lila tries to read and understand the Bible. She has no prior relationship to religion, but she has vowed that John Ames’s son will be brought up praying, as his father does. The discussions in Gilead between the two pastors were way over my head, but these are more fundamental.

I am not particularly interested in religion, but what I like about Robinson’s books is that they are about good people trying to be good. That is a refreshing theme these days. And the writing is superb, the subject matter approached with delicacy. I can’t recommend any book by Marilynne Robinson strongly enough.

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Day 442: Housekeeping

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A few years ago I was reading about a nonfiction work called A Jury of Her Peers, which discusses the routine misogyny in the American publishing and academic communities that has resulted in the neglect of works of countless American women writers. This book accomplishes the astounding task of tracing the careers of every significant American woman writer through the twentieth century, including not just the literary writers but even many popular genre writers.

On the Amazon page for the book, the author, Elaine Showalter, includes a great list: Top Ten Books by American Women Writers You Haven’t Read (But Should). My book club read several selections from that list and thoroughly enjoyed all of them. I still have not read them all, but I just recently finished Housekeeping.

First, let me warn about the blurb on the book cover, which makes this novel sound like a cheerful story about an eccentric family. It is not like that at all. The picture on the cover will give you a better idea of the novel.

Ruth and her younger sister Lucille are young girls who have repeatedly been abandoned. As children, they were left on their grandmother’s porch in the cold, remote town of Fingerbone, Idaho, by their mother, who went off to commit suicide by driving off a cliff into the huge glacial lake next to the town. This lake is the scene of another family tragedy, the place where their grandfather, a railroad worker, died when his train plunged off the bridge on the way back from Spokane.

The little girls are raised by their grandmother, a stiff, strict woman who forgets, on the rare occasions when she hugs them, that she has pins and needles stashed in a cloth in her bosom. When she dies, her maiden sisters-in-law take her place, a couple of timid, incompetent great-aunts who feel unequal to the task of raising two growing girls.

Lily and Nona find and summon the girls’ Aunt Sylvia, who was estranged from her mother for years. As soon as Sylvie arrives, the two old ladies skedaddle back to their comfortable room in the Hartwick Hotel in Spokane. Sylvie stays, but the girls are always afraid she will leave. Everything about her seems transient. She keeps a $20 bill pinned inside her lapel and never takes off her coat. She finds old friends in the railroad yard and in box cars and sometimes sleeps outside.

Ruth and Lucille have been inseparable, but soon Ruth feels her sister drifting away, as Lucille makes friends at school and becomes more aware of some salient facts: how unusual their household is and how the townspeople have begun viewing their living environment. Instead of acceding to Lucille’s perfunctory request to let Lucille make her more presentable, tall ungainly Ruth seems to grow more feral. As Lucille turns away from Sylvie and Ruth, Ruth is forced to depend even more on Sylvie.

Water is a persistent image in this disturbing novel. The lake, the scene of their family tragedies, is always there, cold, deep, and mysterious. Many of the girls’ illicit adventures involve exploring this lake. The town floods every year. The landscape is dripping and the road to town muddy. In the early days of Sylvie’s residence with the girls, she buys them cheap sequined ballet slippers to wear to town through the mud.

Every word in this novel is carefully chosen, every sentence exquisite. We can track Ruth’s growing eccentricity and unusual mind by the increasing oddness of her metaphors as she narrates the novel. Housekeeping is a stunning portrait of loss, longing, and fear of abandonment.

Day 281: Gilead

Cover for GileadBest Book of the Week!
Gilead is the novel that precedes Marilynne Robinson’s Home, although it is set in the same time frame and covers some of the same territory. This novel won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

John Ames is an elderly Congregationalist minister in 1956 who believes he is dying. He has a much younger wife and young son, a surprising blessing in his old age. The novel is in the form of a diary addressed to his son in the expectation that he will not live long enough to personally pass on his family history and advice.

Ames lives in Gilead, a small Iowa town on the prairie near the border with Kansas. The town was founded by abolitionists during the Free State wars in Kansas as a refuge for slaves and fighters the likes of John Brown. Ames’ grandfather, also a minister of the warrior-for-God ilk, had visions of God and once preached a sermon in a bloody shirt with a gun in his belt. With that upbringing, his son was naturally a pacifist, who left the church for awhile after that sermon to worship with the Quakers. One of Ames’ most powerful memories is of the journey he made with his father to Kansas, in terrible conditions, to retrieve the body of his grandfather, who had returned there.

Although Gilead is certainly about the history of the town–the wars, the Depression, the Dust Bowl years–it is more about the relationship between fathers and sons, both from the secular and religious points of view. Not only does it explore the relationships within Ames’ own family, but it also looks at that between Ames and the son of his best friend the Presbyterian minister–Ames’ surrogate son–John Ames Boughton.

The story of John Ames Boughton is the one more thoroughly explored in the sequel Home, although interestingly enough, Gilead tells Boughton’s story more explicitly, while Home, narrated by Boughton’s sister Glory, only hints at some of the facts.

The novel, a celebration of life and faith, is beautifully written and full of ideas to ponder. That being said, as I do not particularly have a religious background or bent, I did not fully understand some of the narrator’s ideas and preoccupations. I found Home, although told from the point of view of the same goodness and piety, a more accessible novel than Gilead.

Day 192: Home

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The beautifully written, subtle novel Home by Marilynne Robinson makes me thoughtful. It is 1957. After a failed ten-year engagement, thirty-eight-year-old Glory Boughton has moved home to Gilead, Iowa, to care for her elderly father, a retired Presbyterian minister.

Her father has been waiting 20 years for the return of his best-loved son, Jack. Finally, they hear that Jack is coming home. Always unreliable and setting himself apart from the family, he arrives late, and Glory feels ambivalent about his return. Soon, though, she sees that he is tired and having difficulty being there, and she tries to help him.

The novel carefully explores the relationships between the three of them–Glory loving but distrustful of the pain Jack has caused and protective of her father, Jack trying to make a new life in painful and distressed conditions, and their father forgiving and unforgiving at the same time. In the background are the events of the civil rights movement, toward which Jack and his father have radically different views.

Jack is delicate and fragile. He tells Glory he lived as a vagrant, drunk, and cheat until he met a woman named Della, and now Della has gone back to her parents. He tries to find work in town and writes countless letters to Della.

This novel is apparently related to a previous one, Gilead. I do not know whether it could be considered a sequel, although I know it shares some characters.

To modern readers the manners and dress of this devout Iowa family seem very old-fashioned, and some readers may find the novel slow, but I found it engrossing. It is, of course, a retelling of the tale of the prodigal son.

This is a simple story on the surface, but it depicts complex characters and relationships. It is a novel about family relationships and love, written with a delicate touch. I find it difficult to express how fine I felt it to be.