“Gilead” and “Home” by Marilynne Robinson

These people who can see right through you never quite do you justice, because they never give you credit for the effort you’re making to be better than you actually are, which is difficult and well meant and deserving of some little notice.” – Gilead

 

Marilynne Robinson’s three novels affect me on a deeper level that most novels do.  Yet originally I resisted their hold on me.  These novels about ministers in the small town of Gilead, Iowa, seemed far removed from my own life.  But now I’ve read all three once and the second book “Gilead” twice.

At first glance, Robinson’s novels seem so aggressively out of fashion.  If one were going to write about Christian religion at all today, wouldn’t one write about the right-wing evangelicals who seem to hold such sway in our country today?  Yet Robinson’s novels focus on liberal churches and ministers.  Certainly she is swimming against the tide?

When I completed the third book “Home” two years ago, my original reaction was one of rebellion, ‘Enough of this churchly stuff”.  Both “Gilead” and “Home” are told from the point of view of elderly ministers.  I felt suffocated by this extreme dose of Protestant religion.

Yet there is one character who appears in both novels that entirely intrigues me.  This is the prodigal son, Jack  Boughton.  Originally I thought with disdain “It wouldn’t take much to be a prodigal son in a preacher’s family”.  However, it turns out that the son Jack has really done some mean and wrong acts in his life.   As a boy, he is mischievous, and he keeps getting into serious trouble well into adulthood.  Now Jack is in his forties and lives far away from home perhaps as a form of penitence.  When he decides to visit home, his father is overjoyed.  His father’s best friend Reverend Ames knows all about the damage Jack caused to others in town, can’t forgive him, and actively dislikes him.     .

 Actually “Gilead” and “Home” are the same story told from two different perspectives.  “Gilead” is told from the perspective of Reverend Ames who dislikes Jack.  “Home” is the same story told from the perspective of the overjoyed father Reverend Boughton who is happy to have his son home.

A lesser novelist than Robinson would have softened Jack the prodigal son, made him rakish and loveable.  What gives these novels their power is that in them we are dealing with the real evil that Jack has done.  Jack has to live with it, his family has to contend with it, and the rest of the town is looking on.

In summary, “Gilead” and “Home” are powerful moral novels which deal with personal wrongdoing.

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