by Marilynne Robinson (2008)
Picador (2009)
336 pp

Though Robinson has written only three novels, she is considered by many to be among the top American writers. I agree. My own experience with her three novels has deepened my thoughts and solidified my admiration for her. To me, Gilead is one of the best American novels of all time. It speaks of America’s young past in language that reminds one of the very past it is speaking of. It is crisp and clear yet intricate and syntactically complex. When reading it, we hear not just the Bible but also Melville, Emerson and Theroux. Because Gilead was so perfect to me, I have put off for a long time reading Robinson’s follow-up Home.

It isn’t just because Home was Robinson’s next book that made me wary. It is because Home is a sort of retelling of the events we read about in Gilead. Gilead was a first-person letter / journal written by the Reverend John Ames, the leader of the Congregationalist flock in Gilead, Iowa. Ames is seventy-seven years old, but in his old age he has borne a son with a much younger wife. He knows he won’t be with them for most of their lives. Gilead is Ames’s extended letter to his young son, written over a period of several months so it almost becomes a type of journal in which, while attempting to convey wisdom to his young son, Ames explores himself, eventually coming to a major thorn in his side. During those months, Jack Boughton returns home to Gilead after being absent for twenty years. Jack, whose real name is John Ames Boughton, is the son of Ames’s best friend, the Presbyterian minister, Old Robert Boughton. Jack was an unending source of pain to both Old Boughton and Ames; indeed, he was a source of pain to everyone involved, his siblings not excepted.

Sometimes they made their father promise not to tell anyone, by which he knew they meant Reverend Ames, since he was far too discreet to repeat any confidence, except in the confessional of Ames’s stark bachelor kitchen, where, they suspected, such considerations were forgotten. And what was their father not to tell? How they informed on Jack, telling him what Jack had said, what Jack had done or seemed inclined to do.

“I have to know,” their father said. “For his sake.” So they told on their poor scoundrel brother, who knew it, and was irritated or darkly amused, and who kept them informed or misinformed and inspired urgent suspicions among them which they felt they had to pass on, whatever their misgivings, to spare their father having to deal with the sheriff again.

Jack eventually left Gilead after impregnating a young girl, only now to return inexplicably. The last parts in Gilead — after Ames has expressed such deep love of the individual, particularly of his young son, whom, he says, he will love unconditionally — show Ames struggling to tolerate the very presence of Jack, let alone to forgive him and love him.

Home takes us to those same months but in the Boughton homestead instead of Ames’s study. Unlike Gilead, Home is a third-person narrative, closely tracking the mind and actions of Glory Boughton, Old Boughton’s youngest daughter. At the beginning of the book she has returned home after her own painful disillusionment — her fiancé of several years is actually a married man. She feels she should have known, if she had wanted to. Now, feeling like she’s regressed to being a child again, Glory takes care of her father as he slowly but surely creeps closer to senility and to the grave. “At this time she could decide nothing about her life. She did not want to think about her life.” Their quiet reverence is disrupted when Old Boughton gets a letter from Jack saying he’s coming home, after twenty years of almost no contact. Old Boughton gets a burst of nervous energy. He thanks God for this blessing and cannot wait to see his lost son. Glory realizes that she was just a young girl when Jack left Gilead; she hardly knows him, though as a young child she always wanted his affection. When Jack comes home, it is uncertain whether he has changed or not. It is also uncertain why he has returned home, though we get the sense that his return was the result of pain and loss, as Glory’s was.

As I read the first one hundred pages or so, I couldn’t let go of the fact that I was not reading Gilead, that Home didn’t match Gilead for its linguistic purity. Also, I loved reading John Ames’s elusively simple writing. The third person narrator doesn’t allow for that same intimacy. I was becoming sadly resigned to the fact that Home, while obviously excellent, would be a disappointment.

But some transformation occurred near the halfway point. Everything in the first 150 pages became deep and Robinson’s layered story took on a life of its own. I looked forward to seeing John Ames, but I didn’t need him in order for me to experience the bubbling life going on under the words. Despite the joy Old Boughton feels at his son’s return home, this is not a simple retelling of the Prodigal Son. Old Boughton can’t help but bring up old grievances. He seems to have forgiven his son, but he can’t help but be amazed at all he’s been through because of Jack.

“And then you really were gone, weren’t you. Twenty years, Jack!”

Jack drew a deep breath and said nothing.

“And why am I talking to you about this? But it was always a mystery to me. Be strict! People would say to me. Lay down the law! Do it for his sake! But I always felt it was sadness I was dealing with, a sort of heavy heartedness. In a child! And how could you be angry at that? I should have known how to help you with it.”

In many aspects Home has a polite, respectful surface. The characters have been brought up to be controlled and to worry more about others’ feelings than their own despair. Or, as we see above, at least cast their grievances as personal failings or incomprehensible aspects of human nature. But the dialogue is taut with distrust, or with moments meant to be light but that remind everyone of the past:

Teddy went to his brother and took Jack’s hand in both his hands and held it. “So it’s true. You’re really here. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. I’ve hardly been able to believe it.”

Jack laughed. “I could show you the wound in my side if you like.” Then, “Sorry.” And his head fell, and it was real regret. He was so tired of being himself.

The last half of the book is exceptional. Old Boughton becomes increasingly tyrannical, unrelentingly reminding Jack of just how hard he makes everyone’s lives. Sure, the dying man apologizes, almost immediately, but the intensity behind each attack builds until there are few moments of peace.

“Yes, well, maybe it’s a joke, I don’t know. Last night was about as bad a night as I have passed on this earth. And I kept thinking to myself, asking the Lord, Why do I have to care so much? It seemed like a curse and an affliction to me. To love my own son. How could that be? I have wondered about it many times.”

Beneath this story of human relationships is also a deeply touching, troubling look at human relationships to place, particularly home. I was awed by Robinson’s ability to maintain such a delicate balance between several interrelated elements, and always in that delicate language. The following lengthy passage comes late in the book after a particularly sad night.

And here is the world, she thought, just as we left it. A hot white sky and a soft wind, a murmur among the trees, the treble rasp of a few cicadas. There were acorns in the road, some of them broken by passing cars. Chrysanthemums were coming into bloom. Yellowing squash vines swamped the vegetable gardens and tomato plants hung from their stakes, depleted with bearing. Another summer in Gilead. Gilead, dreaming out its curse of sameness, somnolence. How could anyone want to live here? That was the quesiton they asked one another, out of their father’s hearing, when they came back from college, or from the world. Why would anyone stay here?

In college all of them had studied the putative effects of deracination, which were angst and anomie, those dull horrors of the modern world. They had been examined on the subject, had rehearsed bleak and portentous philosophies in term papers, and they had done it with the earnest suspension of doubt that afflicts the highly educable. And then their return to the pays natal, where the same old willows swept the same ragged lawns, where the same old prairie arose and bloomed as negligence permitted. Home. What kinder place could there be on earth, and why did it seem to them all like exile? Oh, to be passing anonymously through an impersonal landscape! Oh, not to know every stump and stone, not to remember the fields of Queen Anne’s lace figured in the childish happiness they had offered to their father’s hopes, God bless him.

This took me back to the magical work of Willa Cather, and not just because of the repeated “Oh!”

I believe Gilead is still the better book, still the one people should read. But Home is the worthy successor. I highly recommend reading it second — I’m not sure I believe those who say you can read them in either order. I think the perspective gained in Gilead, the voice of John Ames, is important to the structure of Home. But, Home — this is a magical literary connection to America’s own past, her own home. Perhaps it’s not a home we want to go back to, but I think many of us feel that sense of angst and anomie.

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