Marilynne Robinson is one of the more famous modern novelists of our age. And considering this is only her fifth novel, she has had a remarkable career. The Gilead books are intertwined. They can be read alone or out of order. But they all have some relationship to John Ames. The elderly pastor of a small church in Gilead Iowa, the main subject of the first book of the series.
The second book, Home, is mostly about Robert Boughton’s family, John Ames’ best friend and fellow pastor in the same town. It is told from the perspective of Glory, the daughter who has returned home to care for her ailing father. But nothing in the Boughton family is not about Jack, named for John Ames, but a prodigal who finally returns for a visit.
I need to go back and reread Home. Of the three previous, it was my least favorite. Not because any of Robinson’s books are not well written, but because I love the story of grace that is more central to Lila and Gilead. The character of Jack is part of a story of grace, but one I have always been less interested in. Rev Boughton grieves and prays for his son. The town can see how Jack’s hurts and harms, not just himself, but everyone around him. It is not always that Jack intends to harm. Quite often, the harm comes through bad luck. But it is easy to blame Jack for his bad luck.
The book opens in the middle of the story. Jack and Della are walking around inside of a cemetery that has been locked up for the night. He is trying to be very careful with her because, already, he loves her. And Jack is always aware of the harm that comes to those that love him. It is only later that we hear more about Jack’s story and find out how he and Della met. Jack is an alcoholic and thief and bum. When he meets Della he was recently out of prison, ironically for a crime he didn’t commit. She is a respectable high school teacher, and also the child of a pastor.
The main problem with their relationship is that they are living in the mid-1950s, St Louis. Della is Black and Jack is White and their romance is not just culturally inappropriate, but illegal. There is never really a question of their love (although honestly, I find Della a more interesting character than Jack.) As much as their love is never really a question, so is the reality that there is not really a way for them to be together. It isn’t just the racial divide. It is also that Jack is older, inappropriate as a romantic partner because of his alcoholism, criminal record, and lack of prospects. And Della is the opposite, young, idealistic, a great teacher, and a faithful Christian.
Robinson’s books are very internal. The first book was set up as a journal recounting his life to his young son, who he knew he would not be able to see grow up. The next three books in the series are all primarily told from inside the main narrator. Much of the content is thinking about the world around them. These are not fast-moving books. But the slow pace I think is part of what I love about them. They are counter-cultural not just because of the speed of the story, but also because of the serious grappling with issues of faith, especially predestination.
I would not start the series with Jack. Generally, I would read them either Gilead or Lila first. Those two tell opposite sides of the romance and lives of John Ames and his wife Lila. Then read the opposite side of the romance. Then read Home and Jack. I think you could read these in either order. The printed order is the reverse of the chronological order. But either way, there will be some spoilers to the other. I really do love Robinson’s prose and I will read any fiction she chooses to write.