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Pulitzer Prize winner’s latest novel calls the weary homeward

In her novel, “Home,” released this past autumn, Marilynne Robinson reveals a sister’s thoughts as a long-estranged brother returns home. In her story of Jack Boughton’s return to their fictional hometown of Gilead, Iowa, Glory Boughton explores doubt and faith, estrangement and family, sin and redemption.
But this novel does not provide a simple view of home or homecomings, no simple embraces and celebrations; life is complicated once the Sunday dishes are cleared away. Not only does the novel illustrate the difficulty of returning home in a meaningful way, but ultimately draws readers into a struggle over Jack’s alienation. Readers will probe their own understanding of forgiveness as well as ask important questions about God and biblical themes.
Many of the characters, themes and events in “Home” will be familiar to readers of “Gilead,” which received the National Book Critics Circle Award and a 2005 Pulitzer Prize. Her range as a writer is equaled by her depth and skill. Reviews of “Gilead” were quick to point out the beauty of Robinson’s language and the elegance of her writing.
In a complex and interesting way, “Home” creates a counterpoint with “Gilead.” By using a sister’s point of view to tell of the same prodigal’s return to town, this novel creates a parallel universe of relationships, perceptions and causes.
Narrated by John Ames, elderly pastor and best friend of the patriarch of the Boughton clan, “Gilead” is written to provide counsel to a son who will not live to be an adult before his father dies. As Ames’ reflections unfold, the prodigal son of his best friend returns to town. In “Gilead,” Jack Boughton is that wayward son who, in Ames’ view, makes himself a pest, an almost-rival for a wife’s attentions, and an erstwhile antagonist.
“Home” is beautifully written, but renders voices and perspectives very different from Ames’ in “Gilead.” Here Glory, the youngest sibling among the Boughtons, is introduced to readers as she hurriedly prepares a welcome for her brother upon his return to the home where she cares for their dying father.
When her father learns of the promised return of the family’s prodigal, the conflicts of the story begin to open to view.
Glory’s perspective is shaped by her approach to middle age haunted by her own losses. She observes her brother’s heartbreak and comes to understand him better as he reacquaints himself with his father, the Reverend Ames and his hometown. Thus a detailed and nuanced portrait of Jack takes shape as this time at home goes along: he is troubled and bright, kind and generous to a fault. He longs to believe again and to hope. Jack is deeply marked by disappointment.
In this parallelism, the view of Jack taken by Ames in Gilead is both confirmed and complicated. Ames has misunderstood and been misunderstood, just as Jack has, in his turn. As Glory pieces together the mysteries of a prodigal’s life, readers see that despite his broken heart and his difficult return, Jack remains both full of gentleness for the father with whom he disagrees and “bone weary” of his own search for redemption.
Readers slowly come to know why Jack is, well, Jack.
Yet “Home” is not narrowly about Jack. Neither will readers need to have read the first novel to understand the second. This is true partly because the conflicts — told with tenderness as we learn them through the scrim of a sister’s love — are American conflicts, not simply a family’s foibles or a denomination’s follies.
If “Gilead” rooted familial conflict in the greatest issues of the 19th century, “Home” brings this forward in the hang-ups, hopes, and failures of the mid-20th, in which it is set.
One simple way Robinson projects Jack’s story onto a larger frame of reference is by associating the family’s and town’s conflicts with the nation’s woes. When television arrives, when a magazine is found in the attic, or when Jack knows he will be misunderstood yet again by the folk of Gilead, readers share in Jack’s sufferings as well as larger woes.
For all its theological view of reality, this book remains an elegantly simple tale about a brother and sister struggling to manage the tangles in their lives, reconcile themselves to their dying father, and to find a path forward.
Like Faulkner’s characters and stories at their best, Jack and Glory compel readers forward, seeking a balm for sufferings so that in the end, when renewals come and hopes dawn, the light belongs not only to Glory but to us all.
Between such truths of this fiction and the realities of our world rises a longing which leaves me understanding anew why the old hymn continues to beckon, “Ye who are weary, come home”.

SCOTT LaMASCUS reads and discusses Marilynne Robinson’s books with his students at Oklahoma Christian University, where he is professor of English and director of the McBride Center for Faith and Literature. See www.oc.edu/mcbridecenter.

  • Feedback
    We need to understand the difference in unity and uniformity. Christ’s prayer was for unity not uniformity.
    February, 1 2009

Filed under: Reviews

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