Pacific Northwest readers were early adopters of the work of author Marilynne Robinson - Robinson spent time at the University of Washington, and her breakout novel, 1980’s Housekeeping, was set in a small Idaho town. When Robinson won the Pulitzer Prize for her deeply spiritual novel, 2004’s Gilead, it was a pleasure and a vindication for readers who had championed Housekeeping as one of the best novels of the 20th century.
Now Robinson has written Home, which tells the story of Gilead in a different voice. First, a word about Gilead: It was written as the testament of John Ames, a small-town Iowa preacher, in the form of a letter to his six-year-old son, to be read after Ames was gone and his son grown.
Ames wrote of his love of and estrangement from family members, of a lifetime of pondering the nature of God and of the return to Gilead of a man who had been a trial and a tribulation to him - Jack Boughton. It was, and is, an incandescent, moving work.
Home revisits this time and place, but from the perspective of Jack Boughton and his sister Glory, a 38-year-old woman in the wake of a failed romance, who has come home to take care of her dying father, the Rev. Boughton, Ames’ best friend. Jack has returned after two decades of silence and separation from his family.
It’s 1956. Gilead has an eerily timeless feel. Kids are innocent, the hope of a seemingly unclouded future. The furniture in the Boughtons’ stuffed Victorian parlor sits in judgment of the modern age; it’s so quiet one almost longs for a phone to ring.
For the dying Rev. Boughton, marooned in his lifelong home, the present continuously bleeds into the past. When Jack presents his father with a bunch of mushrooms, the old man is swept into a reverie of times gone by:
“He drew a deep breath and laughed ... ‘Morels. Dan and Teddy used to bring me these. And blackberries, and walnuts. And they’d bring in walleye and catfish. And pheasants. They were always off in the fields, down by the river. With the girls it was always flowers. So long ago.’”
So long ago, and so close behind. The Rev. Boughton’s biggest failure is Jack, and one of Jack’s biggest regrets is the pain he has caused his father. When Jack returns, father and son commence an excruciating attempt to reconcile—on the doorstep of death.
Few other characters intrude, creating a sense of compression and emotional claustrophobia heightened by the fact that this is a preacher’s family, and the issue of What Will Everyone Think is never far from the front porch.
One of Home’s pleasures is watching Glory and Jack rediscover each other after years of separation and misunderstanding. Each possesses a wry, almost mordant sense of humor; for such a serious writer, Robinson can be very funny. Through hardship and humor, these two siblings find in one another an empathy unique to those in the same gene pool, shouldering a similar burden of parental expectations.
But Home has more serious aims, and they’re centered on the Rev. Boughton. In decline, he still speaks with two voices: that of a loving father, and the voice of a God taking the measure of lives fallen short of perfection. He says some terrible things to Jack, and Jack comes close to exacting a terrible retribution. Toward the end, the Reverend and Glory have this interchange, with Jack as witness:
“Glory said, ‘It’s been hard for him to come here. You should be kinder to him.’
“A moment passed, and her father stirred from his reverie. ‘Kinder to him! I thanked God for him every day of his life, no matter how much grief, how much sorrow—and at the end of it all there is only more grief, more sorrow, and his life will go on that way, no help for it now. You see something beautiful in a child, and you almost live for it, you feel as though you would die for it, but it isn’t yours to keep or protect. And if the child becomes a man who has no respect for himself, it’s just destroyed till you can hardly remember what it was—”
Note to parents, present and future: Some regrets are better kept to yourself.
Home will not be a novel for everyone. If you were raised, as I was, in an old-line Protestant environment where judgment is the knife-edge of the kindly gesture, and reconciliation means “bend to the Lord’s will”, this book will resonate with you for weeks after you’ve finished it.
If you weren’t, you may well wonder: Why do these people keep tormenting themselves, measuring every thought, word and deed against 500 years of Protestant/Calvinist doctrine?
Robinson is a practicing Congregationalist mightily concerned with issues of spirituality, philosophy and religion. My take on Home is that it is her meditation on the difficulty of bringing together two key tenets of Christianity—the imperative to judge and the need to forgive.
The Rev. Boughton is determined to both enfold his son in love’s embrace and save his soul. He judges Jack—minute by minute, day by day, year by year, and yet he tells himself continually he must forgive. How can these two impulses reside peaceably within the same heart, and how does love fit in? With great difficulty, Robinson may be saying, requiring a greater magnanimity—grace, if you will—than we mere humans are likely to possess.