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Friday, February 13, 2015

Review: 'Lila"

By Marilynne Robinson
Literary fiction
October 2014
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374187613

To be able to write without pity but with understanding about people who are considered less than nothing by most of the world -- the strays, as they are called in this novel -- and to also write about grace, compassion, existence and love is a great gift to the kind of reader who still wants to reconcile all the things that go on in this world. Even if that reconciliation seems a fool's errand to many.

That's the kind of writer Marilynne Robinson is. Her latest novel, Lila, is set in Gilead, Iowa, as are her last two novels, and concerns itself with the same characters in those novels. This time, the focus is on the young wife of the Rev. John Ames. He is the old country preacher whose voice was first heard in the novel Gilead, in which he is writing down parts of his life and ideas for his young son.

Lila was carried away as a young child by Doll, a tough woman who saw no sense in letting her continue to exist neglected in a house filled with anger and fighting. There was only token resistance to their leaving, and Doll, with the help of an old woman whose house they found, nursed her from the brink of death.

She grows up as part of a loose band of drifters, migrant workers in the days before the Dust Bowl and the Depression, being a calf to Doll's cow. She feels Doll's love and sees Doll's scarred face unhidden. She sees the boundless energy and curiosity of another girl who is part of the group, the restlessness of the others, the love the leader has for his wife and the pride he has in doing what he can to take care of them all. Hard times and petty theft tear them apart.

The years are not kind to her. Even when Lila finds a place to settle for a spell, she is only existing and not looking forward to anything. She moves on when she is recognized or when Doll comes to her in a time of need after Doll sent Lila off on her own.

Lila was not looking for a place to stay when she ended up outside Gilead, sleeping in an abandoned shack, earning a little money, food and clothes by gardening and cleaning for others. Just as she was picked up off the porch one night by Doll, and again found by Doll on church steps after the others abandoned her, Lila is found when she goes into a church in Gilead to get out of the rain. The Rev. Ames sees her and their lives change.

The old man is as much on Lila's mind as she is on his, even though she doesn't open up to him and remains skittish. This continues after she suggests he marry her. Lila is lonely without thinking that she deserves company, afraid of people looking down on her or feeling sorry for her. As she notes:

When you're scalded, touch hurts, it makes no difference if it's kindly meant.

How do you believe someone loves you when the only loving kindness you've known came from someone who pushed you away and, at a time when you thought you could give them something back, denied knowing you as thoroughly as Peter denied knowing Jesus? How can you ever believe you belong somewhere or with someone?

Robinson uses both show and tell to demonstrate how someone like Lila, who doesn't know what a large and forgiving heart she has, could start to feel comfortable with the idea of being loved. The moment when Lila began to feel loved, to believe that she could be loved, is chronicled. But its significance is not immediately trumpeted to her. She doesn't have one of those big "Eureka!" moments that tells both the character and the reader that a big change has occurred.

The significance of the moment Lila knew her life had changed does not occur to her until later, when it becomes a settled part of who she is. The moment comes after she and the reverend have wrestled with the question of existence and the theology of baptism and life everlasting. The idea that the people she traveled with as a child, especially Doll, could be condemned to hell or to not being in heaven bothers Lila a great deal. And the same for the Rev. Ames. They are both kinder than that. (So is the Rev. Ames's dear friend Boughton, the Calvinist who loves to argue with him. Their love and worrying over each other is as strong a testament to brotherly love as any large act of great heroism.)

Lila also tries to improve herself by stealing a Bible from her future husband's church and copying sentences over and over. Then and later, during her pregnancy after they are married, she ponders Ezekiel and the claiming of someone as a living being to care for. It holds her attention in a way that Job does not. She already knows bad things happen to good people. It's the idea of belonging that she struggles with.

At the same time, Lila is a character who does care about other people. During one hellish sojourn, the idea of a baby that she can take and care for, and treat well, is the only thing that keeps her going. She wants to give that gift that Doll gave to her when she picked Lila up off the porch one night and just kept on going.

It's that giving nature that she displays in an event that mirrors an event in the novel Gilead, when she understands the problem of another stray human being who doesn't feel he belongs. In both cases, it's interesting to note that her husband mistakes her intent both times. He fears she has left because he fears so much that she will leave, that he doesn't have enough to offer her. Although she keeps telling him in this novel that she could pick up and take off any time, she doesn't realize she would do no such thing.

Lila's story is a parable of love without pity, of a prodigal who doesn't realize at first she has found home, of seeking to understand in which knowledge of hardscrabble living provides as much wisdom as years of studying books and of the enduring human compulsion to reach out to another and to care about being cared for. It is a fitting kind of story for someone like Robinson whose theology studies are as embedded into her fiction as is her knowledge of human nature.

It is the kind of fiction in which a person seeks to understand why we are the way we are, written within the framework of the way she has reconciled the world to something beyond. It is the kind of fiction that does not judge her characters, or real people, and is the stronger story for that level of human understanding.

©2015 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Review and reprinted with permission

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