In her new novel, Lila, Marilynne Robinson has written a deeply romantic love story embodied in the language and ideas of Calvinist doctrine. She really is not like any other writer. She really isn’t.
Her literary career certainly does not resemble anyone else’s. Over the last thirty-four years, she has published four novels as graceful as deer, and four brilliant, scholarly works of stompingly polemical nonfiction. Robinson’s first novel, Housekeeping (1980), was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. She did eventually win the Pulitzer for her second novel, Gilead, which appeared an astonishing twenty-four years later. With Home and now Lila, Robinson has created a small, rich, and fearless body of work in which religion exists unashamedly, as does doubt, unashamedly.
Narrated by John Ames, a seventy-six-year-old Congregational minister who is dying, as a letter to his seven-year-old son, Gilead is suffused with Ames’s love of a world he knows is ephemeral; the novel’s drama, and it is dramatic, is in his speculation on what lies ahead, but even more in his diffident yearning for what he leaves behind. It is refined, flawless, achingly emotional.
Gilead was followed four years later by Home, a novel that takes place in the same small town, Gilead, Iowa. Home is the story of a ne’er-do-well, a prodigal son, returning to his father, the Presbyterian minister Robert Boughton, John Ames’s best friend. An astute observation of the complications of family feelings, the novel is in some ways a more conventional narrative than Robinson’s earlier work. But running through the story of brothers, sisters, and paternal expectations are Robinson’s urgent questions about religious redemption, so unconventional in contemporary fiction as to be radical. In Lila, too, Robinson poses doctrinal questions about predestination and grace, about the afterlife and who will be there and who will not, serious questions only for the sincerest of believers, yet they become serious in Robinson’s telling for the rest of us as well.
Perhaps Robinson is able to write so powerfully and engagingly about religion, even for the nonreligious, even now when the discussion of religion has become so debased by fiery fundamentalism on the one hand and fiery atheism on the other, because she writes about questions rather than answers. Even her preachers do not preach so much as wonder. Morality and judgment are present only obliquely, part of a distant landscape. “Fingerbone was never an impressive town,” she writes in Housekeeping. “It was chastened by an outsized landscape and extravagant weather, and chastened again by an awareness that the whole human history had occurred elsewhere.” Her spirituality is indistinguishable from her lyricism, which is indistinguishable from the quotidian concerns of mortals, and she can write about a daily chore with passionate beauty. But if the quotidian can be wondrous, she seems to say, then the wondrous must be with us everyday, as ubiquitous, as necessary as sunlight.
Robinson approaches her characters with uncompromising curiosity, but that curiosity is at the same time so patient it is almost chivalrous. Their lives are full of disappointment, and they disappoint others; they are an imperfect lot. But Robinson is not in the business of judging them or lifting them up from sin or meting out narrative justice. Instead, she attempts, insistently and with good humor and respect, to understand them as they attempt to understand themselves.
The characters in a Robinson novel are unlikely people of great originality, and yet as a reader, one recognizes them at once, as intimates and as if they were universal—tropes in wonderful old tales heard since childhood. The kind white-haired Calvinist minister who marries the vagrant who plants potatoes in his garden? The moment John Ames appears for the first time as the narrator of Gilead, one doesn’t just meet him, one remembers him, vividly. When Robinson writes that Sylvie, the transient aunt in Home, “seldom removed her coat, and every story she told had to do with a train or a bus station,” she gives a sense of the unique as something available.
Her new book, Lila, is the story of an outcast, an almost feral child who improbably grows up to become the wife of the solitary reverend John Ames. A revered, almost silent presence in Gilead and Home, the preacher’s wife in Lila finally speaks, and her story is lovely and ugly and rough, illuminated by ambivalence.
In Housekeeping, a ten-year-old orphan named Ruth was whisked away from small-town propriety to a life of wandering—an almost enchanted existence, Robinson suggests, an adventure full of hard work and vagabond freedom. The woman who rescues Ruth from the weary, grinding jaws of convention is her aunt Sylvie, dreamy and restless, a wanderer even in her imagination. Lila is also the story of a stolen child, but this child’s world is not one in which the prison house threatens to shut down childhood, it is a loss of childhood altogether: a dumb and violent existence of confusion and fear.
Lila’s first world is so constricted by neglect that she has not even been given a name. She is so young (four or five; she will never know for sure) that she can later remember only unconnected details of this part of her life: the daily humiliations that could easily be those of a cruelly unwanted dog, as well as the small, infrequent kindnesses shown to her by only one person, a woman named Doll. Doll might throw her shawl over her as she sleeps on the floor huddled beneath a table. She might leave an apple beside her. She once sneaked her a rag doll made from a chestnut covered with a bit of cloth, tied with twine.
The novel begins on a night when the child has been yanked out from beneath the table where she spends most of her time and locked outside to get her out of the way. The horror of such a stunted, violent life could so easily be the stuff of morbid banality, a lurid tale of child abuse and neglect. But Robinson is too careful and respectful an observer to abandon one of her characters to simple victimhood:
Somebody had shouted, Shut that thing up or I’ll do it! and then a woman had grabbed her out from under the table by her arm and pushed her out onto the stoop and shut the door and the cats went under the house.
Robinson’s characters are alive and individual in the world, no matter how squalid that world. In Robinson’s vision, not only is a child locked outside alone at night, but the cats go under the house.
Doll, the woman who rescues her, names the child Lila, and the two of them take to the road. Like Ruth, Lila, too, is released to a life of wandering, as well as the freedom of hard work and independence. She and Doll join up with a small group of migrant workers, decent, insular, profoundly ignorant:
They all thought it was a fine thing to live the way they did, out in the open like that…. If they were tired and dirty it was from work, and that kind of dirt didn’t even feel like dirt.
Lila doesn’t speak, at first, and she tries never to leave Doll’s side. One of the group, Mellie, a girl not much older than Lila, says:
I know that woman ain’t your mama…. You probly an orphan…. I used to know an orphan once. Her legs was all rickety. Same as yours. She couldn’t talk neither. That’s probly why she was an orphan. She sort of turned out wrong.
Even among these outcasts, Lila is an outcast until, gradually, they become her family, and their life becomes her world. The only time in eight years she is separated from them is the period in which Doll gets a housekeeping job in order to send her to school. When the teacher asks the name of her family, Lila says “Doll.” “You’re Norwegian!” the teacher says. “I should have known by the freckles.” And Lila becomes Lila Dahl.
There was a long time when Lila didn’t know that words had letters, or that there were other names for seasons than planting and haying. Walk south ahead of the weather, walk north in time for the crops. They lived in the United States of America. She brought that home from school. Doll said, “Well, I spose they had to call it something.”
Lila’s ability to read is not given much weight when she and Doll return to their migrant friends. When she reads a sign that says General Store, Mellie says, sensibly:
Well, anybody can see that’s a general store, so what them words going to say? County jail? It don’t look like nothing else but a store, does it?
The arbitrary nature of words, of names, when compared to the essential shuffling along of daily life is an uneasy tremor that runs through the novel. One of the migrant group is named Marcelle, a name she chose “for herself after she heard some women talking in a beauty parlor,” a comical confusion, a moment of vanity that nevertheless has in it a sense of yearning. The origin of Marcelle’s name appears within one of Lila’s lively, levelheaded reflections on existence, long after the group of migrants has split up.
Lila has no use for prayer or church:
Let us pray, and they all did pray. Let us join in hymn number no matter what, and they all sang. Why did they waste candles on daylight?… There was no need for any of it. The days came and went on their own, without any praying about it.
When Ames tries to express his own love of and need for religion by saying it has to do with the meaning of existence, Lila thinks:
All right. She knew a little bit about existence. That was pretty well the only thing she knew about, and she had learned the word for it from him. It was like the United States of America—they had to call it something.
For Lila, existence might as well be called Marcelle, and hers has been a blur of dust, labor, and exile. But without knowing the name, she nevertheless understands the paradox of human existence, its improbable energy, the mystery of it: “The evening and the morning, sleeping and waking. Hunger and loneliness and weariness and still wanting more of it.”
Doll and Lila and the others in the group stay together until the “Crash,” another word Lila understands only through her experience of it. Everything changes then, the group disperses, and even Doll and Lila are separated. Robinson reveals, bit by bloody bit, a grudge against Doll that turns into a sporadic vendetta, a bleak determination to revenge the theft of a child nobody wanted. Doll, the one person Lila has ever loved, the one person who ever loved her, disappears, and Lila is alone.
The open road Lila travels now has none of the sense of adventure and freedom and healthy work of her earlier journey. This road is miserable and leads to misery, and it is only when she ends up in an abandoned shack on the outskirts of Gilead, fishing and picking weeds for her dinner, that Lila finds a little peace. She takes daily work as a laundress, a housecleaner—whatever she can find. Taciturn, suspicious, bitter in her grief for the loss of Doll and the loss of hope, she is still somehow able to be taken by surprise by the beauty of everyday life:
She liked to do her wash. Sometimes fish rose for the bubbles…. Her shirts and her dress looked to her like creatures that never wanted to be born, the way they wilted into themselves, sinking under the water as if they only wanted to be left there, maybe to find some deeper, darker pool. And when she lifted them out, held them up by their shoulders, they looked like pure weariness and regret. Like her own flayed skin. But when she hung them over a line and let the water run out, and the sun and the wind dry them, they began to seem like things that could live.
The idea of baptism runs through the novel like that river—silty, fishy, clean. The group of farm workers once went to a revival meeting to sell apples to the believers listening to the preacher inviting them to “the great gift of baptism which makes us clean and acceptable.” “Clean and acceptable” sounds magnificent to Lila, but religion is something Doll and the other adults constantly warn against. She has always been told never to trust preachers:
This is how you got turned into an orphan. Then they put you in a place with other orphans and you can never leave. High walls around it.
Lila, the skeptical, hard-bitten vagrant, is not a likely candidate for religion. “What would I pray for,” she thinks, “if I thought there was any point in it? Well, I guess the first thing would have to be that there was some kind of point in it.” But one Sunday, she ducks into Gilead’s Congregational church to get out of the rain, and so begins one of the strangest, most beautiful, and most delicate courtships I have ever read. Lila, the Reverend Ames, and the doctrines of Calvin come together in a quiet, subdued, sometimes awkward dance of passion: a step forward, a step back, the brush of an elbow, of an idea.
Even as she pushes back against any feelings for “that old man,” twisting them into resentment for his kindness toward her, interpreting his interest as pity, Lila walks into town to tend his garden and, on Sundays, appears in church. The outward signs of courtship are unconventional. Lila prunes and coaxes back to life the roses on the graves of Ames’s first wife, who died in childbirth, and the baby who died with her; Ames sees the roses growing and knows who tended them. Lila steals a sweater from Ames and sleeps with it against her cheek; Ames knows the sweater is missing and knows who took it.
After a period when Lila stays away, working for neighboring farmers rather than townspeople, getting paid in poultry, Ames walks to the shack late one night, not to see her, just to know that she is all right; and she knows it is him. Her reaction is proud and almost coy:
She thought, He found out what he wanted to know. I’m here, and I have a fire and supper. That greasy old hen must have smelled like a kind of prosperity. The thought pleased her. Now he’ll think I don’t need nothing from him. If it was him.
Their encounters are brief, stilted, oddly direct, yet aloof, like Lila herself, but the romantic tension grows, borne along, incredibly, subtly, beautifully, by theology. Lila accosts the Reverend Ames with blunt, uncompromising questions. He answers them with a tentativeness that grows out of his modesty. And then there is the Bible. Lila steals a Bible from Ames and copies out random passages in order to practice her handwriting, contemplating the words and the ideas as she scratches away.
These passages are not songs of Solomon, however: Lila prefers Ezekiel. “She was mainly just interested in reading that the people were a desolation and a reproach. She knew what those words meant without asking.” She is drawn to the strangeness of biblical verse, “salted babies, sparkling calves’ feet.” And she is drawn to the old preacher and his beautiful voice. When he says he wishes there was some way he could repay her for tending the roses on the graves, “she heard herself say, ‘You ought to marry me,’” and it is a touching, comic moment, Lila brimming with shame, certain he thinks her insane, the reverend answering in his mild, unswerving way, “Yes,…you’re right. I will.”
Lila tries to back out of it, not wanting what she interprets as pity, too ashamed of her past life to imagine standing up in the church to be baptized, much less married to the silver-haired preacher. Ames has walked out to her shack where she is fishing for catfish when she tells him all of this, and what follows is an unforgettable love scene, amorous, tender, and ardent: a baptism. Lila is coming up from the river when she sees Ames: “So there she was, Bible in one hand, catfish jumping on a line in the other, barefoot….” There to give her a present, a locket that was his mother’s, Ames notices the Bible. She tells him that she stole it, then that she stole his sweater, and he answers that he was glad that she wanted the sweater.
He said, “Well, you probably know why.”
She felt her face warm. And the fish kept struggling, jumping against her leg.
While the catfish flops in the dust, the two lovers parry, against their natures as much as anything else, she armed with mistrust and shame, he with diffidence and resignation. And then, in the sunshine with a bouquet of sunflowers, using a bucket and water from the river, Reverend Ames baptizes Lila Dahl:
“Lila Dahl, I baptize you—” His voice broke. “I baptize you in the name of the Father. And of the Son. And of the Holy Spirit.” Resting his hand three times on her hair. That was what made her cry. Just the touch of his hand. He watched her with surprise and tenderness, and she cried some more. He gave her his handkerchief. After a while he said, “When I was a boy, we used to come out along this road to pick black raspberries. I think I still know where to look for them.”
For Robinson, romantic love is itself a kind of grace and even eternity is brought to earth. “There is no justice in love,” Reverend Ames says,
no proportion in it, and there need not be, because in any specific instance it is only a glimpse or parable of an embracing, incomprehensible reality. It makes no sense at all because it is the eternal breaking in on the temporal. So how could it subordinate itself to cause or consequence?