FARRAR, STRAUS AND GIROUX, 2014
Marriage counselors would certainly have discouraged talk of a marriage between an aging Presbyterian pastor in Gilead, a small Iowa town, and an orphan 40 years younger who had only years of wandering with an itinerant group to show for her life. This novel, the third in a trilogy that includes Gilead and Home, builds on the lives of ministers Ames and Boughton – men well read and theologically aware with inquiring minds, gentle, compassionate, respected and revered by their congregations. They have performed baptisms, marriages, funerals beyond counting. They have had their own share of losses, grief and unanswered questions.
Into this world crashes Lila, who starts out as an ungainly girl who “sort of turned out wrong,” was neglected from the very beginning and gets shoved in the corner under a table to drown her cries. A woman named Doll sees her plight and snatches her from a doorstep, accepting responsibility for her at great sacrifice to herself. The two join a band of itinerants who tour Iowa farms and homes looking for seasonal work – a common phenomenon in the 1930s – bartering, patching, repairing, scrounging, scrabbling for any way to get through life, especially during the winters. Within this group, Doll acts as Lila’s surrogate mother, “an angel in the wilderness” (the language is reminiscent of the angel who rescues Hagar and her son in the desert), tenaciously providing for her welfare, even enrolling her in a school for some months so she can learn to read. Here Lila learns how ignorant she is. She knows only field work and the ability to make change. The sun’s rising, their wanderings as they move about in response to the changing of seasons, their continual quest for whatever food they can glean – lots of root vegetables and backfat – such had been their lives, and Lila has known no better one, though, despite a growing loneliness, she did experience a form of joy in her relationships. Her memories of that life remain robustly alive, so much so that a good part of the novel consists of flashbacks into it.
How does she arrive in Gilead, home of Rev. Ames, an elderly man, a widower?
By a circuitous route. Doll finally needs to separate herself from her charge, and, in her subsequent wanderings, Lila spends a brief time in a house of prostitution, where her eccentricities make her useful only as a cleaning lady. She escapes eventually and, by means of a hitchhiker, a Nazarene, finds an unoccupied shack to live in and wanders into Gilead. To get out of the rain, she sits on the doorstep of Ames’ church. She hears his sermon and witnesses a baptism. They become attracted to each other, get married and, hard to believe, have a son.
Robinson understands well the historical era in which the novel is set. We get allusions to the Great Depression, the stock-market crash, sandstorms, crop failures, bankruptcies and lives that become increasingly difficult for both farmers and the itinerants who depend on them. It is an age of dime stores, washing machines with wringers that need cranking, Sears Roebuck catalogs that end up in outhouses, and camp revivals (always treated with respect). Life exists at a very elemental level. As Lila slowly matures, she formulates serious questions, questions that, as she discovers from her pastor-mentor-husband, have religious implications. A kindly ballet ensues. Lila is independent, teachable but wary. Ames is a good teacher and is diligent in understanding this unusual creature of God. They learn to trust and respect each other in a way that brings changes in both while they retain their essential integrity.
It is her curiosity about life’s issues that attracts Lila and Ames to each other (somewhat reminiscent of the Ruth and Boaz story). Here one must read carefully, for in, through and between the lines, Robinson is making the case – suggestively rather than didactically – for a Christian reading of reality. Lila is an apt learner. Her husband respects her questions and answers them as best he can. And he himself grows through the exchange. Someone interested only in the progress of the plot will surely miss Robinson’s intent. Readers disposed to faith affirmations will recognize with appreciation this component of the novel.
So what are the issues that get raised in these conversations? Ames affirms creation and marvels with Lila at the mystery of their existence. Their discourse challenges nihilistic interpretations of the world. He needs to explain questions about eternity, time, predestination, why things happen the way they do (he is hard put on this one), the immortality of the soul, the last judgment, the efficacy of baptism, the resurrection (this brings her great comfort). Robinson is well known for her appreciation of John Calvin, and she finds it useful to refer to him at least five times in the book. We get Scripture, hymns and observations about contemporary idolatries. We get church communities that work, pastors who are agents of grace and not hypocrisy and who respect the verities. All this is very radical in the context of contemporary literature. Any lesser novelist would have her work dismissed as sentimental. But Robinson is no amateur, and she compels readers to take her seriously.
All of this needs elaboration. Robinson understands that our world resists ethical principles and witness. It is refreshing, therefore, to have such virtues as kindness, courtesy, shame, forgiveness, chastity, transgression and grace come alive as affirmations rooted deeply in religious soil. Robinson demonstrates through the wide acceptance of her works and against the current of the times that the greatest novels arise out of a religious discernment. In her case, with art that conceals art, with the boldness of wisdom, with disciplined understatement, she treats faith as a reality that is utterly normal, virtues as truly attractive and those who embody truth, goodness and beauty as truly interesting people.
She is no amateur theologian, either. Ames’ answer to why things happen the way they do will be difficult to surpass. All too briefly put: We must break out of the ordinary cause-and-effect way of thinking and realize that in his mysterious ways, God with his own agenda is able to reconcile seeming contradictions. He can turn sorrow into joy and grief into dancing. And his motivation is grace and love and the maturing of his people. “God is good … not sometimes, but always,” Ames says.
Steven J. Van der Weele is retired from teaching English at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan.