Literary Corner Cafe

Monday, August 8, 2011

Book Review - Home by Marilynne Robinson

Home, the winner of the 2009 Orange Prize, is a companion novel of sorts to Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize winning Gilead. Both novels can stand on their own, of course, and Home is neither prequel nor sequel to Gilead. Home takes place during the same summer in 1956 as Gilead, and contains many of the same characters. However, while Gilead revolves around John Ames, a third generation Congregationalist minister, and around Ames’ memories and reflections, Home revolves around the Boughton family and tells their story and their history, from their perspective.

The Boughtons, especially Jack (John) Boughton, Ames’ godson and namesake, and the wayward son of Ames’ best friend, the Rev. Robert Boughton, do make an appearance in Gilead, but Home is their book just as Gilead is the Ames family’s book. Robert Boughton and John Ames grew up together in Gilead, and when it came time for them to follow their calling in life, both men followed their own fathers into the ministry, Boughton, whose ancestors were from Scotland, led the Presbyterian church in Gilead, while Ames, whose grandfather was a visionary abolitionist from Maine, became head of Gilead’s Congregationalists. Home develops the Boughtons’ stories, especially Jack’s, stories that began years ago in the small town of Gilead, Iowa. The point-of-view character of Home, however, isn’t Jack, it’s his sister, the thirty-eight year old Glory Boughton, the youngest of the eight Boughton children.

Glory has returned to Gilead, and her family’s big, vine-covered house, in the wake of a failed romantic relationship, to care for her elderly and ailing father, sometimes fondly referred to as “the old man.” Robert Boughton is overjoyed to see his youngest child, though both father and daughter walk on eggshells when it comes to Glory’s broken engagement. By unspoken agreement, it simply isn’t mentioned. Glory, however, has mixed feelings about “coming home.”:

I am thirty-eight years old, she would say to herself as she tidied up after supper. I have a master's degree. I taught high school English for thirteen years. I was a good teacher. What have I done with my life? What has become of it? It is as if I had a dream of adult life and woke up from it, still here in my parents’ house.

As soon as Glory settles in, another of the Boughton clan decides it’s time to return home. Both the Reverend and Glory are surprised when Robert Boughton receives a letter from forty-three year old Jack, the youngest of the four Boughton brothers, and definitely the “black sheep” of the family, stating that he, too, will soon be arriving “home,” in Gilead. Jack hasn’t been “home” for twenty years, when he dishonored himself and his family by getting a teenage girl pregnant, then deserting both her and his child-to-be.

John Ames, in Gilead, remembers Jack less charitably than simply as “the black sheep.” Though Jack’s his godson, the Reverend Ames sees the younger man as a mean-spirited trickster who had no remorse for the damage he caused others, someone who, at best, eschewed any sense of personal responsibility, and who, at worst, was truly malicious.

Readers of Gilead will know that John doesn’t trust Jack around his (John’s) young son, Robby (named for Reverend Robert Boughton), though Robby likes Jack very much, and Jack seems to like Robby. Speaking of Jack, Ames says, “....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.” And predictably, though he’s a generous and charitable man, the Reverend Ames never does credit Jack with trying to be any better than he already is. The characters in Home judge and misjudge one another over and over again.

Jack’s father, however, is inclined to be a bit more charitable regarding Jack, as one would expect. Rather than attribute Jack’s misdeeds to maliciousness or even to a lack of personal responsibility, Boughton feels that Jack’s bad behavior can be attributed to sadness, or an overriding sense of familial estrangement. “I just never knew another child who didn’t feel at home in the house where he was born,” Boughton says. “I always felt it was sadness I was dealing with, a sort of heavyheartedness.” Boughton is overjoyed to see his youngest son and he still feels that his own “boundless love” might open the prodigal’s heart and turn his life around.

As Robinson sets up and develops her story, the past overlays the present time and time again. Boughton is a man who, at this time in his life, at least, prefers to reminisce about the past rather than anchor himself in the present, and really, who can blame him? When Jack gives his father a bunch of mushrooms, they trigger a flood of memories in the older man:

He drew a deep breath and laughed.... Morels. Dan and Teddy used to bring me these. And blackberries, and walnuts. And they'd bring in walleye and catfish. And pheasants. They were always off in the fields, down by the river. With the girls it was always flowers. So long ago.

Glory, however, doesn’t recognize the beloved brother who arrives in Gilead, “a stranger unsure of his welcome.” Gone is the handsome man Glory once idolized, and in his place is someone pale, thin, and distinctly unkempt. And it’s clear Jack has a secret, a secret he chooses not to share with his father or with Glory. (Readers of Gilead, however, will know what that secret is.) Jack has changed, and Glory now sees him as “the weight on the family's heart, the unnamed absence, like the hero in a melancholy tale.”

Jack may not be a hero, but he definitely is carrying the weight of a great sorrow on his shoulders. It’s clear Jack is speaking of himself when he asks, “Do you think some people are intentionally and irretrievably consigned to perdition?” Yet neither his father nor his godfather can answer Jack’s question with any real clarity. It’s Lila, Ames’ much younger wife who reassures Jack that “a person can change. Everything can change.” But does it? Can they?

It’s clear Home is a secretive novel, or a novel filled with secrets. And it’s clear Jack Boughton is a man in spiritual crisis. While one of Jack’s secrets revolves around the letters he writes every day to a woman named Della, and why those letters are eventually returned unopened to the Boughton home, Jack’s spiritual crisis is something both the Reverend and Glory fear, lest Jack leave Gilead once again. Robinson writes:

They had always been so careful of him, almost afraid to touch him. There was an aloofness about him more thoroughgoing than modesty or reticence. It was feral, and fragile.

By the end of the book, Glory, rightly or wrongly, come to associate her feelings about Jack with the frequent description of the Messiah, as a “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and as one from whom men hide their face.”

One of the best things about Home is the beauty of Robinson’s writing. Though she’s from Montana, she’s been teaching at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop for twenty plus years now, and it’s clear she’s come to love the small towns and farms that dot the Iowa countryside; she’s definitely caught the rhythm of their life:

One evening Jack came in from the late twilight while Glory was settling her father for the night. They heard him in the kitchen getting himself a glass of water. The air had cooled. Insects had massed against the window screens, minute and various, craving the light from the tilted bulb of her father’s bedside lamp, and the crickets were loud, and an evening wind was stirring the trees. It always calmed her to know Jack had come inside for the night. She knew he would be propped against the counter, drinking good, cold water in the dark, the feel and smell of soil still on his hands.

But the rhythm of life in a small village in Iowa, more often than not, is rather static, and Home, despite Robinson’s beautiful, shimmering, but plain, prose, is a rather static book. Some readers will be able to tolerate this and even like it, while others will find it boring. And those readers who grew up in strongly religious, Protestant homes, will, I think, understand the people in Home best of all.

I found Home far more religious than Housekeeping, which I found spiritual, but not religious at all, and less religious than Gilead. (All of Robinson’s writing is strongly influenced by her own Protestant faith. Raised a Presbyterian, like Boughton, she became interested in the Congregationalist faith – the faith of Gilead’s John Ames – while studying 19th century American writers, and today she is a longtime member of the Congregational United Church of Christ in Iowa City, Iowa.) But, while Gilead is the more religious book, Home does more to explore family dynamics and relationships. It is, after all, a book whose central theme revolves around the return of the prodigal, and Home also touches on questions of politics in that Jack is very concerned with a certain political question. And, although Gilead and Home can be read as “stand alone” books, I think the reading of one certainly enriches the reading of the other. Both books do raise similar theological and spiritual questions, however, despite the theological questions posed in both books, don’t expect any answers, at least no clear-cut answers. Robinson has said that while she likes exploring matters of faith in her writing, she, herself, is content to let the questions raised stand, unanswered.

If I had one problem with Home it had to do with the voice of Jack Boughton. We’re told Jack was/is the “the black sheep, the ne’er-do-well” of the family, but when Jack “speaks,” he speaks in the gentle, understanding voice of his father (or of Robinson, herself), not his father’s ne’er-do-well son. For example, when Jack is telling Glory about the woman he left behind in St. Louis, he says, “We became friends almost without calculation or connivance on my part.” This is not the Jack Boughton Robinson describes to us, the “black sheep,” the man who left a young girl pregnant and his child-to-be. Jack, more often than not, elicits sympathy from the reader, which I thought was fine, but I did want access to his more unprincipled side as well.

In the end, readers who liked Housekeeping and Gilead are going to love Home, while those who found the first two books too slow moving are going to find Home too slow moving as well. I don’t think anyone can argue with the book’s perfect structure, though, or with the beauty of its essentially plain prose.

Home, for me, was my favorite among Marilynne Robinson’s three novels. I enjoyed spending time with the Boughton family, and I found Home a more emotional, but no less beautiful, experience than the other two books.


Recommended: To those who love highly literary novels and can tolerate a slow moving book that is dependent more on characterization than plot.

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