When Marilynne Robinson came to Philadelphia's Free Library last fall to read from her new novel, Home, she drew a crowd of loyalists. The auditorium wasn't completely packed– she was competing that night with the last of the televised presidential debates.
It seemed a fitting juxtaposition, given that Robinson prefers to write about small town America in the 1950s when television was a relatively new invention and people had fewer options for diversions. Her novel Home and its predecessor in 2004, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead, are both set in rural Iowa and deal with the lives of ministers and their offspring. Indeed, Home returns to several of Gilead's characters but shifts the focus from Rev. Ames, the retired Congregational minister in town, to his lifelong friend, Rev. Boughton, a Presbyterian minister, and the return of two of his middle-aged children to the family homestead.
As Robinson commented wryly at the library, "I don't deserve to have insights into the pastor's family." This literature Ph.D., who heads the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop, describes herself as a liberal Protestant believer and churchgoer. She has long thought about the history of religious ideas and has published a book of essays, The Death of Adam, defending the Puritan intellectual and ethical tradition–including the writings of John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards. She acknowledges that Calvin believed in our "total depravity" but adds: "The belief that we are all sinners gives us excellent grounds for forgiveness and self-forgiveness, and is kindlier than any expectation that we might be saints, even while it affirms the standards all of us fail to attain," Robinson writes in her essay "Puritans and Prigs."
Yet in her novels, Robinson sublimates polemics and is instead animated by character. Although she hadn't planned to write another novel set in Gilead, she told the Philadelphia gathering that "the characters were insisting," and she wondered, "Why am I denying them their lives?"
When Home opens, daughter Glory has returned to Gilead to care for her ailing father. A former teacher, Glory has been disillusioned by an irresponsible fiancé, who has drained her of her finances and self-esteem. She is a broken 38-year-old woman, at home again. "'Home to stay, Glory! Yes!' her father said, and her heart sank." With these words, the novel begins. We sense Rev. Boughton's enthusiasm for both the company and the care that her return represents. We also see how her father's expectations depress his daughter. Conflict, a classic ingredient of good storytelling, is introduced immediately. Robinson uses the third person to narrate the story, which allows her to move from Glory's thoughts to her father's, and then to other characters as well.
Robinson says she is character-driven in her novels. The characters take shape in her mind and then act in accordance with their natures. Glory is a nurturer. She dreamed of settling down in a home in a town larger than Gilead. She longed to have children–three at most–and not the family of eight children of which she is a part. In contrast, Rev. Boughton believes that this homestead "embodied…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."
The great "sorrow" of Rev. Boughton's life soon returns to Gilead in the person of Jack, his oldest son. This prodigal, who abandoned his girlfriend and baby daughter twenty years ago, also left a family behind to worry and to pray.
Jack was a minor character in Gilead. He was named after his father's friend, Rev. John Ames, and is a disappointment to both clergymen. In his youth, Jack engaged in theft, drank too much, and didn't even come home for his mother's funeral. It would be easy to paint Jack as the irresponsible black sheep. But Marilynne Robinson doesn't do easy.
When asked by an interviewer why Jack, who becomes the center of Home, wasn't written in first-person narrative, Robinson responded: "Jack is thinking all the time–thinking too much–but I would lose Jack if I tried to get too close to him as a narrator. He's alienated in a complicated way. Other people don't find him comprehensible and he doesn't find them comprehensible."
As the story unfolds, Jack, Glory, and their father transition from being overly polite and tentative around one another to gaining a familiarity that living together under one roof often brings. Few writers express the beauty in the mundane tasks of family life like Robinson. From preparing a chicken, to washing dishes, ironing, and cutting back vines, the author describes these activities so accurately and poetically that they come to life and ring true. Most of the action takes place within the confines of the home. Grand themes–of good and evil, guilt and grace, youthful dreams dashed and the regrets of old age–are interwoven seamlessly within the minutia of family life. And the subject of faith finds a home on virtually every page.
About Glory, Robinson writes: "For her, church was an airy white room with tall windows looking out on God's good world, with God's good sunlight pouring in through these windows and falling across the pulpit where her father stood, straight and strong, parsing the broken heart of humankind and praising the loving heart of Christ. That was church."
Handsome and worldly-wise Jack surprises them by playing an old hymn that his father requested: "Softly and Tenderly, Jesus is Calling." To his sister's amazement, he continues to play other hymns. Glory is shocked both at his memory and at his piano playing. Jack counters that he's supported himself by playing the piano in cocktail lounges and that he's also made ends meet by washing dishes in restaurant kitchens.
Jack–whom we find likeable, flawed, sensitive, and deeply uncomfortable within his own skin–asks his father and Rev. Ames in one pivotal scene: "Do you think some people are intentionally and irretrievably consigned to perdition?" We sense that his question is far more than an academic one. As Glory says of her brother, there was "an incandescence of unease about him whenever he walked out the door or, for that matter, whenever his father summoned him to one of those harrowing conversations."
Toward the end of the novel, Jack seeks to pacify his father in his dying days. He is haunted by the thought that he should pretend to have a saving faith, but thinks he should just let his father die in peace. This scene is strangely moving, as are so many others in the rich and powerful novel.
To finish a Marilynne Robinson novel is to feel enriched. She has great gifts as a writer; she has thought deeply on every character and scene and takes faith, however she defines it, very seriously. Undoubtedly, it was not by chance that Rev. Boughton asked his son to play the hymn: "Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling…calling oh sinner, come home."