A blog entry here two and a half years ago (January 2016) discussed a phase I was in of reading Marilynn Robinson books. The phase is currently being revisited because my reading buddy, Linda, and I have taken up Gilead—we’re both reading it and will spend some time talking about it.
Robinson’s gift as an author is not plot, nor setting, nor pacing, but rather characterization. Her key characters are deeply drawn to the extent that they become unforgettable. This is true mostly of the characters who actually appear on the page as part of the story (the pastor John Ames and his wife, Lila, for example), but also of a few who appear only in the memories of the key players.
Through John Ames’s memories, we come to know his grandfather pretty well, a difficult man long gone from the world but one who left his mark on his family and his church. No matter how dire a situation the old man faced—including the loss of an eye in wartime—he was inclined to remark: “I am confident that I will find great blessing in it.” How can you not love a character who makes such a statement his approach to life?
Gilead is a love story, of sorts, but much more it is a working out of one man’s theology and fortunately he is quite ready to admit when he’s in over his head. One of a great many lines I’ve marked is this one: “… there are certain attributes our faith assigns to God: omniscience, omnipotence, justice, and grace. We human beings have such a slight acquaintance with power and knowledge, so little conception of justice, and so slight a capacity for grace, that the workings of these great attributes together is a mystery we cannot hope to penetrate.”
For a couple of months I’ve been reading almost nothing but Marilynne Robinson. I really discovered her work only because she was suddenly pictured on the covers of both New York Review of Books and Writer’s Digest in the same month. I figured that much publicity must mean something!
So first I picked up a copy of Lila, Robinson’s National Book Critics Circle Award Winner, published in 2014. Immediately hooked, I put myself on the waiting list at the library for Gilead, which won the Pulitizer Prize, and also Home. All three books circle and recircle the lives of two families, both minister’s families, in Gilead, Iowa. The books are not heavy on plot, so if action is critical to you as a reader, these are not the books for you. However, if you like excellent writing and coming to know the psychological makeup of the characters, you will love Robinson’s work.
My favorite of the fiction books remains Lila, and the appeal lies both in the life and mind of this wonderful character and in the theological tidbits that are dropped here and there. Here is an example, spoken by Lila’s husband, the Reverend John Ames, as he reads to her a draft of a sermon: “Things happen for reasons that are hidden from us, utterly hidden for as long as we think they must proceed from what has come before, our guilt or our deserving, rather than coming to us from a future that God in his freedom offers to us.”
The sermon continues (it begins on page 222), but this opening thought struck me as worthy of dwelling upon in appreciation for the gifts that come to us—perhaps not “out of the blue” but rather out of the future God has ordained for us.