Marilynne Robinson, At 'Home' In The HeartlandMarilynne Robinson tackles questions of faith and family in her new novel, Home. A companion piece to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead, Home sets the tale of the prodigal son in small-town Iowa.
Though her books are imbued with an old-fashioned Protestant ethic, Marilynne Robinson, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead, is uncomfortable with too much talk about morality. It is, she says, a word that can be easily misused, and Robinson — whose writing has been described as "beautiful, shimmering, precise" — is nothing if not careful with words.
Robinson first won literary fame with her novel Housekeeping, which was set in Idaho where she grew up. But for most of the past 20 years she has been teaching at the University of Iowa's famed writers workshop, and during that time she has fallen in love with the rolling fields and small towns that are sprinkled throughout the Iowa countryside. Her latest novels, Gilead and Home, are both set in the same small town.
"There is a definite Iowa aesthetic," says Robinson. "It's sort of modest and optimistic. I think people forget in the metropolitan areas of the country that the country really is largely made up of small towns that function well for the most part."
Robinson's fictional town is called Gilead, a name fairly common among early 19th century American towns because, as Robinson says, people settling this country "had these Utopian intentions. They were going to create a place where there was balm ... the pain of other civilizations would be answered."
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 became interested in Congregationalism while studying about 19th century American writers in college and is now a longtime member of the Congregational United Church of Christ in Iowa City.
But though Robinson sometimes refers to herself as a "Christian writer," she adds, "I wouldn't necessarily start to write books that are 'Christian' in the sense that they wouldn't be meaningful to any other category of people." Instead, she says, "when I draw on my own deeper resources, this interest of mine certainly emerges."
Gilead and Home focus on two ministers who have been best friends since childhood and are now close to death. Both books tell the story of a prodigal son from different perspectives. Robinson says she chose the parable of the prodigal son as the central theme of the novel because it is so powerful. She sees it as story about love.
"It's about the fact that love is not earned," she says. "[It] is 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."
Robinson says that although she enjoys exploring theological questions in her work, she doesn't need — nor does she set out to find — the answers. Instead, she's content to ponder the mysteries of faith from her quiet perch in the nation's heartland.
Sequels and prequels abound in literature, but Home, Marilynne Robinson's third novel in nearly 30 years, brings us a rarer animal: the novel that returns to the characters, time and place of a past work, but from a different character's point of view.
Robinson's Gilead, winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize, brought us the figure of John Ames, a preacher in 1960s-era Kansas who examined the dark complications of faith and free will in a long letter to Robby, the nearly 7-year-old son of his late marriage. Home, in turn, centers on Ames' best friend, Boughton, and two of his children: ne'er-do-well Jack and his younger sister, Glory.
After a crime- and crisis-filled childhood — in which Glory was often left to pick up the pieces — Jack returns home to take care of his aging father. The return of the prodigal alarms Ames, who fears Jack's influence on young Robby and on Ames' new wife, Lily. But nothing is as it seems, and Jack's journey is less about willful destruction than it is about truth seeking and shaking off rootlessness.
In Gilead, Robinson's slow, meditative prose suited the elderly Ames' voice and ruminations, which seemed to push into the past as if through dark water. Home is a faster and choppier read, with short bursts of darkly ironic dialogue that suit its younger protagonists. After a grilling by Glory about his history of chasing women only to manipulate them, Jack responds that he'd collapse without Glory's love and support. "Well, Jack," she replies, thinking of her own runaway fiance, "I don't think I need to tell you where I've heard that before."
If Gilead was about tests of faith, Home is about where, and what happens when, one searches for redemption. Readers who enjoyed the stately, philosophical pace of Gilead may be surprised to find themselves in a house with two squabbling siblings, their fears and angers as raw as if they were still teenagers.
Readers may also be surprised, after Gilead's timeless quality, to find themselves in a novel very much of its time, filled with conversations about the Civil Rights movement instead of deep thoughts about, for example, the atheist philosopher Feuerbach.
But what remains is Gilead's sense of how character, however unkindly, determines one's fate, which in Home arrives silently but powerfully, like a glacier leaving a raw gash in the landscape. Robinson's output may also be glacial, but the force her words leave in her wake is unmistakable.
"Home to stay, Glory! Yes!" her father said, and her heart sank. He attempted a twinkle of joy at this thought, but his eyes were damp with commiseration. "To stay for a while this time!" he amended, and took her bag from her, first shifting his cane to his weaker hand. Dear God, she thought, dear God in heaven. So began and ended all her prayers these days, which were really cries of amazement. How could her father be so frail? And how could he be so recklessly intent on satisfying his notions of gentlemanliness, hanging his cane on the railing of the stairs so he could, dear God, carry her bag up to her room? But he did it, and then he stood by the door, collecting himself.
"This is the nicest room. According to Mrs. Blank." He indicated the windows. "Cross ventilation. I don't know. They all seem nice to me." He laughed. "Well, it's a good house." The house embodied for him the general blessedness of his life, which was manifest, really indisputable. And which he never failed to acknowledge, especially when it stood over against particular sorrow. Even more frequently after their mother died he spoke of the house as if it were an old wife, beautiful for every comfort it had offered, every grace, through all the long years. It was a beauty that would not be apparent to every eye. It was too tall for the neighborhood, with a flat face and a flattened roof and peaked brows over the windows. "Italianate," her father said, but that was a guess, or a rationalization. In any case, it managed to look both austere and pretentious despite the porch her father had had built on the front of it to accommodate the local taste for socializing in the hot summer evenings, and which had become overgrown by an immense bramble of trumpet vines. It was a good house, her father said, meaning that it had a gracious heart however awkward its appearance. And now the gardens and the shrubbery were disheveled, as he must have known, though he rarely ventured beyond the porch.
Not that they had been especially presentable even while the house was in its prime. Hide-and-seek had seen to that, and croquet and badminton and baseball. "Such times you had!" her father said, as if the present slight desolation were confetti and candy wrappers left after the passing of some glorious parade. And there was the oak tree in front of the house, much older than the neighborhood or the town, which made rubble of the pavement at its foot and flung its imponderable branches out over the road and across the yard, branches whose girths were greater than the trunk of any ordinary tree. There was a torsion in its body that made it look like a giant dervish to them. Their father said if they could see as God can, in geological time, they would see it leap out of the ground and turn in the sun and spread its arms and bask in the joys of being an oak tree in Iowa. There had once been four swings suspended from those branches, announcing to the world the fruitfulness of their household. The oak tree flourished still, and of course there had been and there were the apple and cherry and apricot trees, the lilacs and trumpet vines and the day lilies. A few of her mother's irises managed to bloom. At Easter she and her sisters could still bring in armfuls of flowers, and their father's eyes would glitter with tears and he would say, "Ah yes, yes," as if they had brought some memento, these flowers only a pleasant reminder of flowers.
Excerpted from Home by Marilynne Robinson. Copyright (c) 2008 by Marilynne Robinson. Published in September 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux LLC. All rights reserved.