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But first, Marilynne Robinson, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "Gilead," has been called the moralist of the mid-West. But that's not a title she would embrace. But her books are imbued with an old-fashioned ethic. Ms. Robinson is uncomfortable with too much talk about morality. She says that word can easily be misused. NPR's Lynn Neary recently visited Marilynne Robinson in Iowa, the setting for both "Gilead" and Ms. Robinson's new book, "Home."
LYNN NEARY: When Marilynne Robinson decided to take a job teaching at the University of Iowa's Writer's Workshop, she thought her stay would be temporary. But something about the rolling fields and small towns that are sprinkled throughout the Iowa countryside got to Robinson, and the two years she first committed to are now heading toward 20.
"Housekeeping," the book that brought Robinson literary fame, was set in Idaho where she grew up. But "Gilead" and "Home" are both grounded in the Heartland that is Iowa. Robinson says the fictional Gilead that is the setting for both books was inspired by the towns she has visited over the years. On a rainy, late summer day, Robinson strolled through one such town, West Branch, which also happens to be the birthplace of Herbert Hoover.
MARILYNNE ROBINSON: See, there's the birthplace. Look at the house.
NEARY: This one right here?
ROBINSON: No, that little white building down there.
NEARY: Oh, that little tiny one.
NEARY: West Branch is partly a restored village and partly a typical small town, its main street lined with old-fashioned storefronts and simple, white, clappered(ph) homes. It is, says Robinson, a town not unlike Gilead.
ROBINSON: There's a definite Iowa aesthetic. It's kind of hard to describe. It's very - it's sort of modest and optimistic.
NEARY: We slip into an old Quaker Meeting House to get out of the rain, and Robinson immediately seems comfortable in the silence of the place.
ROBINSON: It just seems as if silence has been absorbed into the walls here. It's more silent than normal silence, you know. It's very moving, I think.
NEARY: Robinson is not someone who needs to feel the silence, anymore than she is a writer who needs to fill a page with unnecessary words. Perhaps that is why she has felt pulled so strongly to the quieter rhythms of small towns.
ROBINSON: I think people forget in the metropolitan parts of the country that the country really is largely made up of small towns that function well, for the most part, and that people are very devoted to.
NEARY: Why did you call the town Gilead?
ROBINSON: Well, Gilead is a characteristic 19th century, early 19th century name for towns in America, partly because people had these Utopian intentions, you know, and they were going to create the place where there was balm, where the pain of their civilization would be answered, you know. And I looked on the map and Iowa did not have a Gilead, so I sort of gave it one.
NEARY: The Biblical overtones inherent in the name Gilead are no accident. Robinson's writing is strongly influenced by her own faith. Raised a Presbyterian, she got interested in Congregationalists while studying about 19th century American writers in college. Now she's a longtime member of the Congregational United Church of Christ in Iowa City.
ROBINSON: This is the oldest church still in Houston.
NEARY: It's a beautiful church.
ROBINSON: I'm very fond of it.
NEARY: Sitting in a wooden pew in the sanctuary of the church, Robinson talks about her faith, her writing and how they intersect. At one point, Robinson refers to herself as a Christian writer, then qualifies what she means by that.
ROBINSON: I wouldn't necessarily start out to write books that are, you know, quote unquote "Christian," in the sense that they wouldn't be meaningful to any other category of people. But at the same time I don't think there's any mystery about the fact that when I draw on my own deeper resources, this interest of mine certainly emerges.
NEARY: Two ministers, Reverend John Ames and Reverend Robert Boughton, play a central role in both "Gilead" and "Home." Best friends since childhood, both are now close to death. Robinson's own pastor, Bill Levin(ph) says, he was moved by her portrayal of these men.
BILL LEVIN: It touched me, I think, as a minister because I think in so many way she got being a minister right.
NEARY: Both books tell the story of a prodigal son from different perspectives. Jack Boughton returns home as an adult in need of redemption after a life tainted with failure and regret. "Gilead" begins the story from the point of view of Reverend Ames. Robinson delves into the story more deeply in "Home." As a dying Reverend, Boughton tries to come to terms with the pain Jack has caused his family. Both Robinson and Pastor Levin agree the parable of the prodigal son is a powerful one.
ROBINSON: It's about love. You know, it's about the fact that love is not earned and love is not felt in anyone at their will, because they have made some calculation of someone's worth. That's one of Jesus' most radical parables because it completely overturns all notions of deserving, all notions of how you are scoring relative to other people in life.
LEVIN: You know, with the story in "Home," it's really that sense of what happens after the prodigal son does come home. You know, after people are glad to see him, then what?
ROBINSON: And this is so much a story of someone seeking forgiveness and not really getting it. I don't think it's really forgiveness that he's looking for. I think he's - he knows, I think, that his father forgives him to the degree that his father's capable of forgiving him. I mean, you know, behind the failure to forgive that you can sense in Boughton is a much stronger desire to forgive, which I consider forgiveness.
NEARY: Robinson says she loves to explore the theological questions in her writing, but she does not need nor does she set out to find the answers to such questions. She is content to ponder the mysteries of faith from her quiet perch in the Heartland. Lynn Neary, NPR News.
SIMON: And you can read an excerpt from and a review of "Home" at our Web site, npr.org.
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