Marilynne Robinson is producing serious fiction about major questions confronting us today. Now that her trilogy about a seemingly sleepy Iowa town is complete, we can begin to assess her contribution to 20th and early 21st century literature. When her first work, Housekeeping, appeared in 1980, I felt excited to see what would come next. I waited twenty-four years before I could plunge into Gilead (2004), the first in the trilogy. Though Housekeeping and the excellent film adaptation had shown her agility with prose and her deep understanding of human beings, it in no way had prepared me for what was being attempted in the later novel and its successors, Home (2008) and Lila (2014). Working slowly allows Robinson to refine her characters and her intentions, as she insists on returning discussions of serious spiritual and religious writing to American literature. An avid reader of both the Hebraic prophets and the Christian Gospels, she is impatient with some contemporary Christian denominations that have uncoupled themselves from the Hebrew Bible. Robinson insists that doing this erases the basis and need for Christianity, since Jesus was himself a devout Jew and since his earliest followers believed he fulfilled all the criteria for the Messiah laid done in the Torah and by the likes of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.
So in the Iowa trilogy, she brings us two elderly pastors, John Ames and Boughton, both of whom have preached in their churches and worried theological arguments between themselves for decades. While sharing many general tenets, they diverge in significant ways, with Ames being more willing to admit what he still does not comprehend about God’s mysterious ways while Boughton adheres more strictly to a fairly rigid fundamentalism. She also gives us the powerfully realized characters of Jack and Glory Boughton and Lila who becomes Ames’ second wife. While I keep turning pages and rereading these three novels because they weave such arresting plot lines, it is Robinson’s insistence that life is much more complicated than most of us want to admit, that there is a bigger and wider universe inhabited by a divine being she names God, and that we are our best selves when we extend ourselves to love others even if or when they do not conform to our particular standards. Robinson believes in the existence of grace, even in today’s accelerated and highly materialistic world, so her novels have scenes that move me because what’s happening to a character is so unwarranted or even deserved. For instance, in Gilead, Ames is out walking when he se young heterosexual couple walking in front of him. They come to tree that she shake and, because its has recently rained, water showers down upon them. Ames understand this as a grace-filled moment. In Home, Jack asks his sister Glory to sit with him and make some kind of conversation until it’s the time local bars close so he can’t revert to his alcoholic drinking. She does and the scene is infused with a kind of love that enhances both people. And in Lila, she lends her coat to a young boy she finds sleeping in the same shack she herself lived in before she let herself accept Ames’ protective love. As she covers the stranger, I feel what Robinson calls grace coming from Lila who has herself so often needed someone to do for her what she is now doing for the boy.
Our world is so full of discordant events and comments that some of us, certainly I, sometimes are tempted to despair. But in traditional sacramental religions, despair is human’s worst sin because it is predicated on a sense that “God” has abandoned us. Reading Marilynne Robinson’s trilogy coaxes me from this spiritual and emotional abyss. Surely that is a tremendous gift for any author to give to any readers.