“It felt very good to have him walking beside her. Good like rest and quiet, like something you could live without but you needed anyway. That you had to learn how to miss, and then you'd never stop missing it.”
It isn't often that contemporary literature touches my soul, but Marilynne Robinson's "Gilead" novels (Gilead and Home) have certainly done that. When I heard that another novel set in the small Iowa town was to be released last October, I knew immediately that I would have to read it. Not only does it take us back to a world of simple beauty and intense faith, it also provides us with the history of a woman who has lingered on the edge the story and only hinted at her true depth of character.
This is the story of Lila, the wife of Reverand John Ames whose story is told in Gilead. As a young child, she was taken away from a neglectful home by a drifter named Doll. Raised on the road, in constant search of work, shelter, and food, Lila's childhood and youth was rough and broken yet there were many good/happy memories as well.
After Lila becomes and adult and she and Doll are separated, she finds herself in even darker circumstances. Hell bent on escaping it, Lila leaves St. Louis and eventually finds herself on the outskirts of the small Iowa town of Gilead. It is there that she meets Rev. Ames, who seems to offer her a chance at peace, safety, and love. But trust has never been a luxury that Lila could afford, and not a day goes by that she doesn't have to choose between staying in the quiet town or searching for freedom out on the road.
My Review (Caution - Spoilers):
Ever since I read Gilead, I have been dying to know more about Lila. She played an interesting role in both of Robinson's novels whether it was her quiet devotion to Rev. Ames or the sympathy she seemed to have with Jack Boughton. I think Robinson satisfied every longing I had with this one.
I have always delighted in how Robinson portrays the beauty of grace and the Christian faith. As with the other two novels, we get to see grace played out in the life of one of the characters, but in a completely different way. Rev. Ames is the man who has been secure in his faith for a long time, Jack Boughton is the man who is running from the faith of his father, and Lila discovers grace for the first time and slowly learns to embrace it. She is someone who has never been offered true rest, quiet, and safety. Rev. Ames offers it to her, demanding no explanations, no guarantees, and no apologies. I think it is a beautiful picture of the life that Christ offers us. He gives us love and grace regardless of our past.
But though Robinson portrays the beauty of God's grace, she doesn't ignore the difficulties we can have with reconciling our faith with our lives. Though her childhood was by no means easy, it is obvious that Lila has a deep affection for the people she knew in her youth. As she learns more about Rev. Ames' faith, she learns that her friends may not have been "saved" and this is something she can't bear to think about. Trying to balance what we believe with what we actually experience in life is quite possibly the hardest part of being a Christian. Robinson does a wonderful job of showing us that we can allow ourselves to question our faith. To not shy away from the hard questions but to ask them and wrestle with them.
As always, Robinson's prose is simply stunning. I will say that the format of this book took some getting used too. Rather than being a letter or novel by an educated person, it is the disjointed thoughts and feelings of a woman who has not received as much education. Time skips around and events don't really follow each other like normal. But it makes sense for the character and becomes easier to follow as you go along.
This is certainly a fitting addition to the "Gilead" series. Though I think I will always love and identify with Gilead the most, the raw beauty of this one touched me and dealt with a lot of my own thoughts and struggles from the past couple of years. Do yourself a favor and pick this one up.