15 December 2014

A Balm in Gilead

Although I'm a tearful movie watcher, I rarely cry at a book.

Gilead is an exception.

I read Gilead quite a few years ago at the strong recommendation of a (bookish like me!) friend.  I was instantly captured by the idea that John Ames, this aging man, would write down all the important things he would want to share with his young son, being quite aware that he likely would not live long enough to see Robby into adulthood.  I was SO moved by the character of Jack (son of his best friend and colleague Robert Boughton), and the tragedy of a life of poor choices and a love that doesn't suit its time.

Fast forward to Home and Lila.

Lila is on the list for consideration for the Maine Reader's Choice Awards.  (My thanks to Farrar, Straus, and Giroux for the reading copy of the book!)  After the moving experience of Gilead, I was thrilled to see this on the list for consideration.  One of the rules of the Award is that we do not consider books that are part of a series.  Marilynne Robinson's Gilead books are a series in a sense (much like Kent Haruf's Benediction is sometimes considered part of the Plainsong series), but unlike a true series, each book can stand on its own merit, set of characters, style, and situations.  However, I think that a reader gets a richer sense of the story arc by reading all three.

So instead of jumping directly to Lila, I read Home first.  I had it on hand here (um, at home) - I must have scooped it up at some point for a bargain.... and then forgotten I own it. (Yeah, that happens sometimes...)  Set in the Boughton house, Rev. Boughton's late-30-something daughter Glory has left her life (and relationship and career) in the city in order to provide care for him in his declining days.  Jack arrives home too - very clearly the Prodigal Son of the family.  Entirely disconnected from his family for a full twenty years, Jack is a profoundly tormented man; an alcoholic and a drifter, he is unable to believe that his family could love and care about him. We come to know the Boughtons mostly through Glory's eyes, and the ordinary ways she cares for her brother and her father - through food and laundry, listening and simply being present, largely without judgment.  We also learn that Jack HAS loved, and has had his heart broken, during his long disappearance.

The book ends... but there is MUCH more story to tell...

Late one night I finished reading Home, and I couldn't wait - I started Lila the same night (staying up WAY too late... again).  I really love that Marilynne Robinson's novels revolve around her fictional town of Gilead, but that the style of each book is so different.  In Gilead we're essentially reading John Ames' diary.  In Home, we get sort of a straightforward "back-story" of some of the supporting characters we'd come to know from Gilead.  But Lila is a stream-of-consciousness-style tale (limited 3rd person) of who she is, where she came from, and how she comes to marry John Ames.  Theirs is a May-December romance: a deeply contemplative and religious widower minister fallen boyishly in love with Lila, a kind and decent, but totally rootless, minimally-educated woman.  

Rescued from abject neglect as a very small child, Lila is raised lovingly by her adoptive mother "Doll." Lila and Doll spend years among a loosely-connected band of itinerant workers; a series of heart-wrenching events tears the group apart and leaves Lila completely alone in the world.  She is a survivor, and Lila embraces that alone-ness, wrapping herself in it like armor in order to protect herself from the hurts of the world.  Long after she's become, at least in name, Mrs. Ames, she still keeps an "out" in her life - a little cache of money, just enough for a bus ticket out of Gilead.  

It's hard to think about poverty...
(Image courtesy: Ian Carroll "Caza_No_7",
Flickr Creative Commons)
I'd like to believe that the misery and grinding poverty depicted in Lila no longer exists in the United States, but I know that's absolutely not true.  There are children who are barely cared for everywhere. There are homeless individuals and families living hand-to-mouth every single day.  They are among us, in every city and town, hidden in plain sight.

It takes a very long time for Lila to believe that she can be loved as deeply as John Ames loves her.  And there are details of her life-before-Gilead she cannot bring herself to share with John (and he never presses her for them).  

But..... there is a mysterious past connection between Lila and Jack Boughton... it is alluded to ever-so-slightly in each book, and then a little more strongly in Lila.  There's much more to come in this saga (at least I hope so, after Robinson has whetted our appetites!)

I loved the style of the writing.  The narrative is like a little river, following the meandering of Lila's thoughts in the present, and then to a remembrance of something in her past: an event, a person, a location (a beautiful meadow, an apple orchard), or a feeling (being wrapped in Doll's shawl, and in her love); and then back to the present.  It's the way we think.  It's Proust and his remembrances over his madeleine.  

There's so much love among the characters in this cycle of books.  I've fallen in love with them.  You might too.

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