Ten years ago Marilynne Robinson began telling us the story of Gilead, Iowa, a tiny town surrounded by fields and farms. A droplet of water in which the whole world is reflected.
She began with Gilead, a novel in the form of a long letter written from the dying John Ames to his young son. Ames situates the town in its historical context, showing how this apparently all-white enclave nonetheless falls under the shadow of racism, from the Civil War to the civil rights movement. And Ames writes the letter in part because he’s afraid that the newcomer in town—Jack Boughton, his best friend’s son, who grew up in Gilead but has since always been a stranger to it—has designs on his young wife, Lila. She too was a stranger in town once, and some part of her will always be a stranger. John Ames worries that Jack’s estranged heart calls to and quickens her estrangement.
John Ames is a preacher. His world is the historical world, the world of pressure and circumstance and coercion—the world of fears, insecurities, theological argument. But it’s also the world of conversion, change, and the freedom of baptism. The world of history—inescapable and exhausting family history, as well as national history—is sometimes broken open, and another world can be glimpsed in the cracks.
These glimpses of ecstatic, timelessly suspended beauty are some of the most memorable moments in Gilead:
There was a young couple strolling along half a block ahead of me. The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet. On some impulse, plain exuberance I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water off her hair and her dress as if she were a little bit disgusted, but she wasn’t.
John Ames is capable of being intellectual and sardonic about his religion when he wants to be. But Gilead is one of the most haunting portrayals of gentle religious faith I can think of.
When Robinson returned to Gilead she wasn’t so gentle. Home, which follows the same events from a radically different viewpoint, is a brutal read. Where Gilead portrays hope sustained, love painstakingly nourished, and beauty encountered in spite of all our misunderstandings and well-intentioned cruelties, Home is a book about despair. Where Gilead is about choosing to remain embedded in the town where you grew up, Home is about slinking back there in humiliated defeat. Home is about how awful it can be to feel oneself inescapably known: all your sins strenuously forgiven but never forgotten.
The two books together form an unforgettable diptych. They contain meditations on faith and its lack, God and his silence. There are images that pierce the heart: a man’s dress shirt with embroidered cuffs, shoved into a car’s exhaust pipe. Not a word is unnecessary or out of place. Like the best novels, they hint at an endless number of other stories. We could listen to the voices of Gilead forever.
The voice I think many of us wanted to hear most was Lila’s. Lila speaks very little in the diptych. She has a mysterious history and an intense theological concern with those who don’t know the Gospel. She’s a pastor’s wife who seems to feel herself a heathen. She’s an uneducated woman married to a man who quotes Feuerbach. And she has integrity. Against all these wordy, thought-ridden characters, silent Lila punches above her weight.
Now Lila has her book. With this book Robinson has added nuances to her portrait of small-town life and of religious faith—the way we can be known and yet not-known by those around us, and the way we can know and yet not-know God.
Lila is not as crisp and necessary as the first two books. Parts of it are beautiful, and much of it is well-crafted. The revelations about Lila’s past are doled out with perfect timing. The first half, when Lila is a new arrival in Gilead and still mistrustful and closed-off, is much better than the second half. I have opinions about this book, whereas toward the first two I only have gratitude.
Lila, it turns out, was a migrant farm hand from her childhood through early adulthood. Lila is full of Iowa farmland: starwort and clover, the way the corn husks cut your hands. Lila was neglected by her birth family and stolen by a woman she only knows as Doll. She never had any religious education until she turned up in Gilead and sheltered in John Ames’s church: “But the rain was bad and it was a Sunday, so there was no other doorway for her to step into.”
Because we’ve read the other two books, we know what happens next: Lila and John fall in love, though they’re hesitant to call it that, and they have a baby. Their separate sorrow and damage somehow help them fit together, despite also keeping them apart. Their happy-ending love is a splintery reconciliation of brokennesses.
Lila thinks—and speaks, when she speaks—in simple declarative sentences. Her voice is lyrical because the world can be lyrical, not because she’s straining to produce thoughts and poetry, the way her husband often strains. Her theological debates with John are laconic to the point of hilarity—and poignancy. There are moments when her voice takes on a tinge of horror. The description of the credenza in which a madam kept the brothel women’s valuables could have come straight out of Stephen King.
Toward the somewhat padded end of the book, Lila does start to sound authorial: I started to hear Robinson defense-lawyering on behalf of her characters. (And on behalf of Calvin. And God! Let all these people defend themselves.) One of the great strengths of the earlier books, especially Home, was the way Robinson let her characters be appallingly hurtful. She trusted her readers to empathize with them not only despite but because of the fact that their writhing and fumbling damaged those around them.
This happens much less in Lila. Everybody is hardworking, yet mistreated and ashamed. Lila is the most hurtful major character, and it’s impossible not to sympathize with Lila. Everybody’s a good person in some rock-bottom way: even the boy who thinks he might’ve killed his father is miserably preparing himself to go back home and face his hanging. I admit I found this disappointing, after having my sympathies stretched on the rack of Home.
Lila’s unguided Bible reading leads her to some startling insights: she recognizes some of the wildest images, the terrible wings and the voice in the firmament. The sheer four-color weirdness of the Bible strikes a chord with Lila, who never felt that her experience of life was normal or intelligible. No normal or intelligible book could honestly respond to life as she’s known it.
It would be reductive to say that Gilead is about what it looks like to say “yes” to God, Home is about what it looks like to say “no” (and why you might do that), and Lila is about what it means to say, “I don’t understand the question.” Still, the best parts of Lila’s religious meditations come when Lila experiences recognition, wonder, bafflement, or fear. Toward the end she starts to reason things out, and it comes across as explaining God or judging him by the yardstick in her mind. This is believable, we all do it, but it’s not that interesting.
The most compelling element of Lila’s religious vision is its tacit opposition between two ways of living in the world, the way of work and the way of baptism.
Lila likes work and takes pride in it. This pride is never acknowledged by anybody except other desperately poor people. More powerful people view Lila and her kind with contempt; their work and virtue, which come at such immense cost to them, are treated as valueless. Work produces pride, but poverty corrodes that pride and leaves only shame behind. You can never work hard enough to escape shame; you can never earn the certainty that you deserve welcome.
Baptism is the central recurring image of all three books. Baptism is unearned; it’s complete in a moment, unlike work, which must be slogged through. Work is time; baptism is the inbreaking of eternity. You can be judged on the quality of your work but the quality of your baptism—including the quality of your faith at baptism—is not relevant. Baptism is done to you, not by you, and so you can never be proud of it.
Lila honors work and calls to account those who fail to honor it. But work—even the work of love, performed in marriage—is limited by our own abilities, circumstances, histories, and wavering desires. Baptism, in these three books, is the moment when we see what love might look like without limits. That isn’t always comforting: part of the case for small towns is that limits create identity. Both Home and Lila explore whether baptism erases the self and whether it can be defeated by a determinedly unsaved soul.
Robinson’s novels are so powerful because on these central questions she doesn’t take sides. She lets readers live out all sides: the shame when we’re judged on our own inadequate efforts and the resentment when we’re given an unwanted gift; the beauty of belonging and the ways it can make us blind; the need to honor work, place, and history, and the ache for something that demolishes all these human things.
Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington, D.C. and blogs at Patheos.com.