Marilynne Robinson is quite unlike almost all contemporary American fiction writers, and those in other countries as well. Robinson’s biography may seem conventional on the surface, but her intellectual and personal formation certainly is not. She was born in 1943 in a remote small town, Sand Point, Idaho, in the northern panhandle, surrounded by vast mountains and lakes. It is not the kind of place naturally conducive to the development of literary genius. In her first novel, Housekeeping (1980), she calls Sand Point “Fingerbone,” and describes it as an unimpressive town, “chastened by an outsized landscape and extravagant weather, and chastened even more by an awareness that the whole of human history had occurred somewhere else.”
While Robinson felt the smallness and remoteness and vastness of the place, as well as what she calls its “enormous silences,” what distinguished her from the rest of her community was the intensity of her childhood religiosity and intellectual ambition. Her family were churchgoing, mainstream, liberal Protestants. Robinson was thus raised, on the one hand, in a tradition that had already become “modern” in a lot of ways, e.g., accepting modern Biblical criticism, welcoming many of the changes of modern American life, including advances in social justice, tolerance, and the like. But her formation was, on the other hand, traditional in the sense of adhering to traditional Reformed Calvinist doctrines and sensibilities, and not treating them as vestiges of the past, while also of being immersed in the world of the King James Bible. In the Protestant world this is a somewhat unusual combination not often found, and perhaps possible only in isolated places like northern Idaho.
According to her own account, Robinson was indeed an exceptionally religious child. In a stunning essay called “Psalm 8” from her collection The Death of Adam (1998) she says, “...it seems to me I felt God as a presence before I had a name for him, and long before I knew words like ‘faith’ and ‘belief.’ I was aware to the point of alarm of a vast energy of intention all around me, barely restrained, and I thought everyone else must be aware of it.” Of course, she notes that those are words a child would not have used, but it does appear that she had a powerful natural religious sensibility and gift almost in the same way that some people are gifted in athletics or music or science. She found herself loving the texture and rhythms and ideas of faith and church, and she says these all seemed to come readily to her. From an early age, her immersion in the King James Bible and her affinity with not only the stories but also the doctrines and habits of faith shaped her in ways that must have seemed strange to many others around her. She says that even when very young she mentally inhabited a world of ancient faith quite different from her ordinary American and Western girlhood: She learned, she says, “to look to Galilee for meaning, and to Spokane for orthodonture.”
Robinson did attend what was then the women’s college of Brown University and eventually earned a PhD in English at the University of Washington, but she decided to become a writer, not an English professor, and has become a very successful one. Besides books of essays, Robinson has published four novels. The first of these, Housekeeping, was set in Idaho, and began to gain her attention. But it was the next novel, Gilead (2004), that elevated her reputation into the stratosphere; it was followed by Home (2008), and now by Lila (2014). These three novels form a kind of interconnected trilogy centered around a small town, Gilead, Iowa, and a set of striking characters and relationships there.
Gilead consists of a set of letters from the aged and soon-dying pastor, John Ames, to his seven-year-old son. We are made aware in that novel that Ames’s first wife has died and that the son was born to a much younger second wife. Lila is that wife’s story, so it forms a backstory to Gilead, the events of which haven’t happened yet.
The child was just there on the stoop in the dark, hugging herself against the cold, all cried out and nearly sleeping. She couldn’t holler anymore and they didn’t hear her anyway, or they might and that would make things worse. Somebody has shouted Shut that thing up or I’ll do it! and then a woman grabbed her out from under the table by her arm and pushed her out onto the stoop and shut the door and the cats went under the house.
So Lila is an abused or severely neglected child, of perhaps four or five years old (she doesn’t know for sure), half-starved and maltreated by whatever dysfunctional family or non-family environment she has been living in (that’s not clear either). And the novel’s action begins when that freezing, undernourished, nearly catatonic child is snatched off the front porch of the house by a woman called “Doll,” who is somehow connected to the people living there, in what appears to be something between a kidnapping and a rescue. It is plain that Doll has saved the child’s life. After they stop running away from the house, Doll says to the girl, “‘I should have knowed it was coming on rain. And now you got the fever.’ But the child just lay against her hoping to stay where she was, hoping the rain wouldn’t end. Doll may have been the loneliest woman in the world, and she was the loneliest child, and there they were, the two of them together, keeping each other warm in the rain.” This introduces the language of vulnerability and “loneliness,” which becomes one of the central themes and concerns of the novel.
The girl herself doesn’t know who she is or who her family is or where she comes from. She doesn’t even have a name until an old woman they take shelter with suggests that Doll give her one: Lila. Doll herself is a semi-literate, hardscrabble survivor who soon joins up with a small band of poor, migrant farm workers led, if you can call it that, by a man named Doane. They follow the crops and seasons from south to north and back again, taking work where they can find it and making do when they can’t. Ignorant and suspicious, they trust nothing and no one in mainstream or straight culture.
Throughout the novel we get periodic descriptions and accounts of Lila’s early life with Doll, Doane, and the other migrants. But rather than developing their story sequentially, Robinson very early on jumps forward to the central event and focus of the novel: Lila’s random arrival in Gilead many years later as a still-poor and lonely young woman, perhaps in her late twenties, where she finds shelter in an abandoned shack outside the town, living by fishing and gathering wild carrots and dandelions and mushrooms, and generally hanging around “like a stray dog.” We learn how Lila one day steps into Pastor John Ames’s Congregationalist church to get out of the rain, how Ames and Lila develop a romantic relationship with one another, and how they are both interested—from utterly different perspectives—in what we recognize as fundamental metaphysical and theological questions.
From this point on, the novel is told as a constant series of flashforwards and flashbacks– forward to Lila’s baptism and eventual marriage to Ames and then her pregnancy and the birth of their son, and backward to her life with Doll and Doane and the migrants. During those sometimes extended flashbacks we gradually gain more information and detail about Lila’s girlhood and early life, and finally about the years immediately preceding her journey to Gilead. During that time just prior to the novel’s “present,” Lila is separated from Doll and moves to St. Louis to try to make it alone. The reader has to pay close attention to this constant time-shifting as events are refracted through Lila’s memories. Sometimes these memories are represented as occurring just within her thoughts, and sometimes as she talks to herself and eventually to her unborn baby in the present.
Toward the latter part of the novel, as the past and present converge, there are a number of surprises and startling disclosures about events in Lila’s past. We gain some frightening although indirect, fragmented glimpses of events that involve Doll, some of Lila’s original “people,” a killing, and a special knife. What actually happened to whom and why remains something of a mystery, not least to Lila.
But this novel is not centrally concerned with the usual revelations of narrative fiction. Rather, the constant focus in Lila is on what might be called spiritual questions, God’s mysterious presence and action in human life and the world, and the role of faith and grace and trust in personal relationships.
Much of the novel’s allure is in how Robinson manages to present and dramatize these great, seemingly abstract, matters through these two incredibly disparate lives and modes of consciousness. On the one hand, we have the lonely, fearful, ignorant, barely literate young Lila, and on the other, the learned, kindly, elderly, but equally lonely Reverend Ames. There have been plenty of odd romantic couples and strange courtships in literature, and plenty of lovers drawn together by different interests, but I don’t think there has ever been one anything like this, a deeply touching love story centered on Calvinist theology and ethics.
Reverend Ames, far from being a know-it-all dogmatician, is constantly probing and puzzling over the deeper meanings and spiritual implications of these doctrines. So when Lila shows up on his front door after their first brief encounter at the church, we have one of the most unusual romantic first moments one can imagine. I don’t normally think of “So what do you think of predestination?” as a great pickup line, but that is what in effect happens here:
[Ames says] “Can I get you a glass of water? I could make coffee, if you have a few minutes.”
She had a day, a week, a month. She said, “I got nowhere to be.”
He smiled at her, or to himself, as if he saw that the mystery of her presence might just be something that a few dollars could help with.
He said, “Then I’ll make coffee.”
She stood up. “I don’t even know why I come here.” She recognized that smile. She had hated people for it....
He shrugged. “Since you are here, maybe you could tell me a little about yourself?”
She shook her head. “I don’t talk about that. I just been wondering lately why things happen the way they do.”
“Oh!” he said. “Then I’m glad you have some time to spare. I’ve been wondering about that more or less my whole life.”
This exchange about “why things happen the way they do” sets in motion this peculiar and touching romance. Ames decides to respond to Lila’s innocently profound question the only way he knows how, which is by writing a letter to her explaining his own wrestling with it.
I have worried that you might think I did not take your question as seriously as I should have. I realize I have always believed there is a great Providence that, so to speak, waits ahead of us. A father holds out his hands to a child who is learning to walk, and he comforts the child with words and draws it toward him, but he lets the child feel the risk it is taking, and lets it choose its own courage and the certainty of love and comfort when he reaches his father over—I was going to say choose it over safety, but there is no safety...
I have struggled with this my whole life.
I still have not answered your question, I know, but thank you for asking it. I may be learning something from the attempt.
Things develop from there. Lila starts to do unsolicited favors for Ames, like tending his garden and putting flowers on the grave of his first wife, and he in turn begins to anticipate and cherish her company and conversations. It is hard to describe how subtly Robinson portrays the tenderness and quiet emotional intensity of the developing relationship between this very odd couple. Robinson is extremely skilled at conveying the pair’s emerging but largely unspoken endearment, leading up to Lila’s baptism and their eventual marriage.
If this novel is about one thing it is about being led out of loneliness and mistrust into relationship and trust. Lila’s whole life has led her to refuse to trust anyone or anything, and she frequently voices her fear and suspicion. I lost track of the innumerable times she says to herself or others that she doesn’t trust them. Besides individuals, she is initially very suspicious of all mainstream institutions, including religion: In fact, Doane had once urged the migrant band to avoid religious people, especially when they offered food or other handouts, because, he tells them, it’s a trick they use to make you think they actually believe the nonsense they talk about. Lila even comes to distrust Doll after Doll leaves her alone for a time.
Throughout the novel, the ability to trust human beings and become attached to them is intertwined with the ability to trust God. We come to intuit that God is working through these human beings, to draw them out of their natural condition of loneliness and isolation. Trusting others—especially for someone who has been as neglected and deprived and deceived as Lila has been—requires a tremendous leap of faith. And throughout the developing Ames-Lila relationship we are led to see their mutual trust and faith in one another grow. What they are both so unexpectedly experiencing is something that can only be described as a mysterious miracle. As they emerge from their mutual loneliness and suffering—Lila from her hard and cruel life, Ames from the loss of his first wife and the creeping losses of old age—they become instruments of a kind of grace—God’s grace—for one another.
She said, “I been missing you.” And he said, “Oh. Well then.” And he put his arms around her, just the way she knew he would, just the way she meant for him to do. She was like all the others who came to him with their grief, and that was all right. She didn’t mind. He was blessing her. He was doing that to people all the time. He rested his cheek against hers, too, and that was different. She felt his breath against her ear. She was his wife.
But of course Lila is “blessing” Ames as well. That this is all conveyed in lovely language, without a trace of sentimental piety or narrative manipulation, yet with constant overt discussions of core Calvinist doctrines, including predestination, hell, and Biblical interpretation is a great testimony to Robinson’s artistic skill as well as religious fluency.
Everything is certainly not perfect in the end. Lila still has severe self-doubts, periodically thinks about running away even after the marriage, and is deeply fearful about the idea that she is going to have to raise the child as a Christian. But we also see what unexpected blessings Lila and John Ames have become for one another, and how they are doubly blessed by this unexpected child. Knowing as we do, or suspecting if we haven’t read Gilead, that this couple will have only a few years left together, adds to the poignancy of the novel.
I do find a few flaws in Lila. While Robinson is generally quite good at capturing Lila’s and the migrants’ uneducated speech, at times their diction seems more elevated or complex than I think Lila could manage (writing low colloquial speech must be one of the hardest things for a novelist to do). And one side of me kept looking for what might be called more social context or complexity in the novel. For example, the people of Ames’s small-town Iowa Congregationalist church seem to just go right along with the marriage of their white-haired, widower pastor to a scruffy young female drifter nearly young enough to be his granddaughter. In fact, the church ladies end up bringing in food—or I guess in Iowa that would be “hot dishes”—to Ames’s home after the birth of the baby. Maybe that would happen; Congregationalists are a tolerant bunch. But this is supposed to be the 1950s, and unless Iowa small towns were a lot different than I suspect, one would imagine that even parishioners who have benefited from Ames’s preaching and cherish his presence among them might react in more complex ways.
But the response to such quibbles is that the novel, and Marilynne Robinson, are ultimately just not very interested in such questions or in ordinary social milieus. This is not mimetic or realistic fiction of the sort we tend to expect, at least when an historical and social world like this has been created. Lila is certainly not a dramatic and action-packed novel. Nor is it experimental meta-fiction or slippery postmodernism or magical realism. Rather, this is grave, probing, meditative writing informed by an unfashionable but highly learned theological sensibility and imagination. It is the kind of fiction the Puritans or Jonathan Edwards might have produced if they had been into writing novels. Many American writers have spent the better part of two centuries trying to escape what many regard as the fatal grip of Calvinism on the American imagination. Imagine their surprise to find their worst nightmare suddenly resurrected, like some literary Freddie Krueger, in the form of a prose poet of the God-haunted Midwest.
Robinson’s Iowa town is named Gilead, which is a Biblical place, a place of grace. The strongest reference to it is Jeremiah 8, where the prophet asks “Is there balm in Gilead?” And the great African-American spiritual answers Jeremiah’s question:
There is a balm in
Gilead, to make the wounded whole.
There is a balm in Gilead, to heal the sin-sick soul.
Sometimes I feel discouraged, and think my work’s in vain.
But then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again.
There is a balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole.
There is a balm in Gilead, to heal the sin-sick soul.
Robinson surely knows that hymn, and it fits her novel well. Many wounded souls, we are led to believe, are being quietly healed on the prairies of Gilead, Iowa. And in the hands of their richly talented author, Marilynne Robinson’s readers may find that balm as well.
Mel Piehl is Professor of Humanities and History in Christ College, the honors college of Valparaiso University.