By Marilynne Robinson
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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