Many consider Marilynne Robinson the greatest living writer of regional fiction. She is often compared to William Faulkner, but unlike Faulkner, her geography is not the colorful and noirish south, but rather the not entirely fictitious town of Gilead Iowa. Here she has set three novels; the latest is Lila, which follows Gilead and Home.
Gilead Iowa is really a place called Tabor, a town overlooking the floodplain of the Missouri. It was founded by abolitionist ministers who named it for a solitary mountain in Israel where many believe the Transfiguration occurred. Though the landscape has nothing in the way of mountains, the founders wanted the name of their town to represent a “high place.” Tabor is a place with a colorful history including the likes of John Brown, but located in that unassuming part of the world that coastal Americans call flyover country. Like fictional Gilead, it is a town rarely seen unless one reads Robinson.
Robinson’s Gilead novels are set in the fifties. They occur concurrently in time as she chooses to tell the story of Gilead’s Calvinist and Congregational ministers and their families not from a linear perspective, but personal ones. Life in Gilead is seen at the same point in time by the Congregationalist minister John Ames, the members of the Calvinist minister Robert Boughton’s household, and Reverend Ames’ wife Lila in successive novel.
The people of Gilead are a well-worn country people. They could easily be Flannery O’Connor types if their lives were given over to some unintended and harshly acquired grace. But that is not who they are. Rather they are people who have lives of hard fought intentional grace, a grace that may or may not occur, but always appreciated when had.
It is hard to observe Gilead or anyplace like it and want to live there or even visit. It is a mundane place inhabited by boring mainline Protestants who read Calvin rather than tune into Joel Osteen. It is an America being rapidly replaced by everybody from tea party evangelists to militant atheists who live in places far more exciting and who do better and more exciting things than get married and have children. It is an America which is dying, but one Robinson begs us to visit and perhaps to reinvent ourselves at least partially in its image before it dies for this mundane place called Gilead is drenched in grace.
Lila’s proposal was direct, fitting of that corner of the Midwest where the cultivated fields of Iowa are giving way to the cattle farms and brown carpet of the Great Plains….
“Then when your mother did come, when I still hardly knew her, she gave me that look of hers and said, very softly and very seriously, ‘You ought to marry me.’ That was the first time in my life I ever knew what it was to love another human being. Not that I hadn’t loved people before. But I hadn’t realized what it meant to love them before. Not even my parents. Not even Louisa. I was so startled when she said that to me that for a minute I couldn’t find any words to reply. So she walked away, and I had to follow her along the street. I still didn’t have the courage to touch her sleeve, but I said, ‘You’re right, I will.’ And she said, ‘Then I’ll see you tomorrow,’ and kept on walking. That was the most thrilling thing that ever happened to me in my life.”
With those words, Lila who learned not only the lesson of how to love, but the harder lesson of allowing to be loved asks the Reverend Ames to marry her. It is a peculiar moment of grace. When the Reverend Ames who has never sought to force grace encounters it in Lila’s words he has the momentary shock of realizing he has need of it. In staid mundane Gilead Iowa love had come to town in Lila’s words and grace asked Reverend Ames’ for a yes. His yes informs every other book in Robinson’s series. From there the static geography of Gilead Iowa becomes the dynamic landscape of every place where grace claims a home. The poverty ridden, mundane, flyover, boring Protestant corner of Gilead Iowa makes itself into every place on earth where one must decide whether to utter the word yes when asked by grace to decide between that and a no. Every word I’ve read in Robinson’s Gilead series (and I’ve not yet read them all) invites this yes.
Robinson’s mundane world is dying, but it is not yet dead and more importantly it need not die at all. There is still a balm in that world and it is for the healing of the nation and its people.
Image: CC license Wayne Dallemore