‘Lila,’ by Marilynne Robinson
Regionalism has always played an important part in American literature, with, say, William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County the iconic Southern example. Those who have read Marilynne Robinson’s radiant Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “Gilead,” will remember that imaginary town in southernmost Iowa, near the conjunction of Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska — Plains country, partially Southern in spirit and looking west, thereby broadly embodying the essential rural Midwestern America at a seminal period, from the Depression to around 1950. Although American literature isn’t usually known for its religious and philosophical novels, we might think of certain essential works, particularly of Melville and Hawthorne, that concern grace and redemption. Robinson’s new novel, “Lila,” combines these regional and spiritual strains of American writing.
Two families are of special interest in the town of Gilead, the Boughtons and the Ameses, each having several generations of Protestant preachers. The narrator of “Gilead,” the minister John Ames, both remembers and looks forward across a highly symbolic, almost biblical American landscape, timeless in its simplicity, mired in poverty and sustained by religion. Addressing his son, Ames recounts episodes of family history and confides his philosophical and religious concerns.
The next volume, the much-admired “Home,” picks up the histories of the two families from the point of view of the Boughtons. The two ministers, Boughton and Ames, careful readers of Feuerbach and Calvin, are thoughtful theologians in the days before television preachers tarnished the good name of the cloth. They are close friends, and though they have some doctrinal disagreements, they have much else to discuss. In “Home,” Robinson describes the “decorous turmoil” of the soul of Robert Boughton, the Presbyterian, but neither man preaches, nor expects, hellfire. God is too good. “Thinking about hell doesn’t help me live the way I should,” Reverend Ames explains. “And thinking that other people might go to hell just feels evil to me, like a very grave sin.”
With “Lila,” the third novel about these families and this town, we understand more clearly the metaphorical nature of the landscape, the era and the history. Lila is a migrant drifter child, then a migrant drifter woman, who eventually becomes the much younger wife of the elderly, widowed John Ames — and the mother of the boy being addressed in the first novel. Lila’s personal tale mirrors conventional Dust Bowl stories during the lawless, desperate period of the Depression. When she is a gravely ill child of about 3, she is stolen away from people who might have let her die. Her kidnapper and surrogate mother is a rough woman called Doll, from whom Lila invents a surname for herself: Dahl. Lila and Doll are on the run most of the time, knowing no permanent situation, creature comforts or material possessions. More than once, Doll uses her knife to defend them. When Lila finally winds up in Gilead she has only one prized possession, the knife that belonged to Doll.
The child’s utter dependence on this woman is shaded by a frightened, tentative wariness that will characterize Lila’s bruised emotional life as an adult. The story Robinson tells here concerns the affection Lila feels first for Doll, then for the elderly minister, and his for her, as well as her education and the beginnings of a healed psyche. Told with measured and absorbing elegance, this account of the growing love and trust between Lila and Reverend Ames is touching and convincing. The stages of Lila’s strengthening sense of security are carefully delineated, physical relations and her pregnancy handled with careful tact.
Central to all the novel’s characters are matters of high literary seriousness — the basic considerations of the human condition; the moral problems of existence; the ache of being abandoned; the struggles of the aging; the role of the Bible and God in daily life. It’s courageous of Robinson to write about faith at a time when associations with religion are so often negative and violent. And goodness, a property Midwesterners like to think of as a regional birthright, is even harder than piety to convey without succumbing to the temptation to charge it with sanctimony or hypocrisy. That is not the effect of this lovely narrative.
Goodness resides in most of the people we meet here, even the madam, known simply as “Mrs.,” who runs a whorehouse in St. Louis where Lila briefly lives. Mrs. lets the rather plain Lila off easy, charging her mostly with chores like cleaning and stoking the furnace. It may seem that Lila’s chaste escape strains our credulity — when, for some reason, we believe in the sinister desperados met along the course of her odyssey. But we certainly don’t wish her fate to have been otherwise. Next to the strange, dreamlike autonomy of characters like Doll, who drift along stealing babies and riding freight cars, the whorehouse scenes in St. Louis seem a little self-consciously cinematic, in spite of the durability of the metaphor — and not only because sin is so naturally allowed for in Robinson’s generous understanding of human nature as to make them seem superfluous. The almost jolly atmosphere of the place, with its hearts of gold, threatens to violate the novel’s grave tone of original innocence and tentative salvation.
As in “Gilead” and “Home,” Robinson steps away from the conventions of the realistic novel to deal with metaphysical abstractions, signaling by the formality of her language her adoption of another convention, by which characters inhabiting an almost Norman Rockwell-ish world (it is, after all, the same period) live and think on a spiritual plane without sacrificing the notion that they are, at the same time, weeding the garden or doing the mending. Characters might say things like “I believe also that the rewards of obedience are great, because at the root of real honor is always the sense of the sacredness of the person who is its object,” a level of diction that isn’t exactly natural speech but one that we understand and respond to with almost reflex admiration, as with Flannery O’Connor or, of course, King James.
Throughout these novels, Robinson has a wonderful feel for Midwestern life, for what people would be wearing, eating, reading. (In “Home,” for example, she notes that when MacKinlay Kantor, who grew up in Webster City, Iowa, had written the grim Civil War prison novel “Andersonville,” “it had broken the heart of greater Des Moines.”) Lila’s virtue, intelligence and fine instincts prevail over her harsh experiences, but she retains her mistrust of certain things: “I don’t understand theology,” she says. “I don’t think I like it.” One wonders if that is Robinson’s coda to three novels that involve quite a lot of theology.
Very few allusions link life in Gilead to particular historical events, though a character once mentions that he might vote for Eisenhower. Nor is this novel about the specifics of Iowa, despite descriptions of its fields and the mention of a movie theater playing “To Have and Have Not.” (If you were to look for a contemporary cinematic equivalent, you might think of the timeless tone and setting of the Coen brothers’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”)
In the end, “Lila” is not so much a novel as a meditation on morality and psychology, compelling in its frankness about its truly shocking subject: the damage to the human personality done by poverty, neglect and abandonment.
By Marilynne Robinson
261 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $26.