Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Marilynne Robinson’s ‘Lila’ completes a trilogy “unlike anything else in American literature”

Photo by Ulf Anderson / Getty Images
Marilynne Robinson’s Lila is one of three “exquisite books [that] constitute a trilogy on spiritual redemption unlike anything else in American literature.” (Ron Charles, The Washington Post, 9/30/14).

Lila is a companion book to Gilead (which won a Pulitzer and a National Book Critics Circle award) and Home (which won the Orange Prize). Now comes word that Lila, a finalist for the National Book Award, has won the National Book Critics Circle Award as well.

Set in the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa, the three books tell the intertwined stories of the Ames and Boughton families. In Gilead, the Rev. John Ames, one of a long line of preachers and still living in his grandfather’s house, is dying and urgently trying to finish a letter to his
infant son so that the child will know his history, the kind of men his father, grandfather and great-grandfather were, so that he will be somehow firmly “connected” to a place and to his people. In Home, another father, the Rev. Robert Boughton, Ames’ best friend, tries to save his son, Jack, from his alcoholism but without much success.

Lila is the story of Ames’ much younger wife and of their marriage. Lila has never been “connected” to any place. She doesn’t know who her people were or even what name they gave her. She was abandoned as a baby, left in a cabin with people who didn’t care if she lived or died, and stolen by a woman who calls herself Doll. Doll and she take temporary refuge with an old woman who suggests they call the baby Lila after the woman’s dead sister. It never occurs to the child that she needs a last name until, in the one year of schooling she ever has, a teacher asks. She says “Doll” which the teacher understands to be Dahl and, so, she becomes Lila Dahl. She and Doll join a band of migrant workers wandering from town to town, searching for work, sleeping outdoors, trying to survive. When Doll leaves for four days (for reasons not made overtly clear), Lila, a child of eight or nine, is abandoned again, left on church steps, refusing to move, until Doll manages to find her. Eventually, the two are separated and Lila wanders on her own, asking for work, managing as best she can. Loneliness is always with her; yet she cannot bear to be around people for fear of being judged or, worse, shamed. After years of this life, she has learned certain things: never trust anybody or anything. Never hope. Never want things you can’t have.

After years of this life, she has learned certain things: never trust anybody or anything. Never hope. Never want things you can’t have.

When Lila meets him, Rev. John Ames is sixty-seven years old, twice her age. As a young man he married but his wife died in childbirth and the child died also. For the next forty years, his life is a dull, lonely routine and he doesn’t hope for or expect anything more. He writes his sermons, eats his egg sandwiches, reads, goes to bed. “I had learned not to set my heart on anything,” he says.

These two come together. She is full of fear and apprehension: “When you’re scalded, touch hurts, it makes no difference if it’s kindly meant.” He approaches her slowly, with infinite patience, much the way you’d tame a stray animal. She agrees to marry him: “If you want to, it’s all right with me, I suppose. But I can’t see how it’s going to work. I can’t stay nowhere. I can’t get a minute of rest.”

But marriage doesn’t provide a miracle. Both of them are still lonely, each in his own way. She doesn’t want to need anything or depend on anyone, even this kind, patient husband who loves her. “I can’t love you as much as I love you,” she says. “I can’t feel as happy as I am.” She constantly thinks of leaving. He worries that she will go, a prospect he finds devastating.

But, she imagined the old man, the Reverend, calling after them, “Where are you going with that child?” The sadness in his voice would be terrible. He would be surprised to hear it. You wouldn’t even know your body had a sound like that in it. And it would be familiar to her. She didn’t imagine it, she remembered that sadness from somewhere, and it was as if she would understand something if she could hear it again. That was what she almost wanted.

Ames believes in God’s grace. Lila is not so sure it exists.

Leslie Jamison wrote in The Atlantic (10/14), “Marilynne Robinson tracks the movements of grace as if it were a wild animal, appearing for fleeting intervals and then disappearing past the range of vision, emerging again where we least expect to find it. Her novels are interested in what makes grace necessary at all — shame and its afterlife, loss and its residue, the limits and betrayals of intimacy.”

It is helpful, I think, to remember that Robinson has named her fictional town Gilead.  In the Old Testament, an anguished Jeremiah shouts, “Is there no balm in Gilead?” (Jer. 8:22). That seems to me to be a central question of the novel. Can badly damaged people be healed by the balm of love or grace? A lesser writer or a stern moralist would give us a clear answer. Robinson seems only to ask us to think deeply about the question.


  1. I'm reading this one! All I can remember reading in elementary school are stories about migrant workers! You need to quit blogging about so many good books. I don't have time to read them all!

  2. I'd love to hear what you think of the book after you've read it!

    1. Just finished, Lila. Still stuck in the words and the wonder of it. Although I don't appreciate or understand the peculiar writing style and sentence structure it was a book I couldn't put down. Sometimes the repetitive rambling bothered me but it also enchanted me...that someone (Lila) would have so very much to think, wonder, and worry about. My new favorite book.