Home: A Novel by Marilynne Robinson (New York: Picador, 2008. 336 pp)
Born in Sandpoint, Idaho, Marilynne Robinson earned her B.A. at Pembroke College and her Ph.D. in English from the University of Washington. She currently teaches at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her work has received numerous awards, notably the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, the Orange Prize for Fiction, the Pulitzer Prize, and a National Humanities Medal.
True to Identity
Marilynne Robinson gets all the props. In her small, fictitious town of Gilead, Robinson conjures the truth of humanity in all its frailty and detail. When considering a story, plot often represents the easy portion. A death propels the protagonist toward the end goal. A war-torn region wants nothing more than a semblance of normalcy. The pristine and pious husband has a dirty secret.
These plots, while in need of careful structuring, can offer a decent story.
But what transcends a story? Let me argue the case of a lived-in character.
The external elements that push a story from one point to another are necessary but without character development, the author only moves chess pieces.
We All Know the Truth of the Internal Life
We all have access to our interior lives. We know what elements of life rip us apart. We know the tender moments where grace is sufficient. We recognize the butterflies of love. A character must feel. A character ought to represent those small tics present in each and every one of us.
Meet the Boughtons
With Home, Marilynne Robinson excels at presenting the interior life of the Boughton family. The patriarch, Reverend Robert Boughton, lives the closing stretches of his life austerely.
His youngest daughter, Glory, has returned home to care for the ailing father.
“Did she choose to be there, in that house, in Gilead? No, she certainly did not. Her father needed looking after, and she had to be somewhere, like every other human being on earth. What an embarrassment that was, being somewhere because there was nowhere else for you to be” (37).
The narrative of the book emerges with the return of the long-lost son, Jack, considered through Glory’s perspective.
Ultimately, Home explores the inevitable dance of family and the difficulty of being true to who you are when the expectations of a parent are so high, all the while discovering the rhythms and importance of the rooted nature of home as a concept.
The Prodigal Black Sheep
A quasi-Prodigal-Son narrative, much of Home explores the nature of family, the capacity for forgiveness, and the ability to live within your own skin.
Jack represents the black sheep of the family. A prior transgression become jail time and his release pushed him further away from the family rather than nearer. After a 20-year absence, Jack intends to return to the home of his youth, even if his family remains skeptical:
“A decade of betrayals, minor and major, was made worse by awareness on every side that they were all constantly alert to transgression and its near occasion, and made worse still by the fact that Jack never repaid them in kind, though this may only have been because their own mischief was too minor to interest him” (6).
While returning to the rhythms of home life, Jack takes an interest in Reverend Ames and his family (highlighted in Robinson’s brilliant Gilead). As he bonds with these neighbors and opens up to his sister, we discover the life in the gaps, twenty years missing. Unrequited love, potentially a son, a keen sense of injustice and a quest for theological truth.
Throughout the novel, Jack and Glory represent truly realized characters. Consider the simple task of going to the grocery store knowing full well the town knows your secrets:
“She had to speak to neighbors in their gardens, to acquaintances she met on the sidewalk. Strangers in some vast, cold city might notice the grief in her eyes, even remember it for an hour or two as they would a painting or a photograph, but they would not violate her anonymity. But these good souls would worry about her, mention her, and speculate to one another about her. Dear God, she saw concern in their eyes, regret. Poor Glory, her life has not gone well. Such a nice girl, and bright” (282).
Ultimately, the lived-in characters provide a window of empathy to the reader. We know these people because we are in their heads. Upon such strong character development, Robinson explores the importance of family as an idyllic, rooted component of our life. Jack, for the 20 years away from home, still enters through the kitchen door and spends his time returning the residence to the way he knew it and shared it to those that would listen over the years.
“All that helpfulness of his, now that she thought about it, was restoration. Mother’s iris garden reclaimed, the Adirondack chairs repaired, the treads replaced on the back porch steps. It was a little like having the family come to life again to have him there, busy about the place the way her father used to be. When he had first come home, fearful as he was that he had become a stranger, he still came around to the kitchen door, that old habit” (300).
Given this position, Home, while beautifully written, lands with a somber note. I think of my life and I mourn the loss of the idyllic. I no longer have a home to where I can return. There’s no structure or restoration by which I can categorize my past. Memories must do. It’s all I got.
Nevertheless, read Home. Read everything Marilynne Robinson writes.
Verdict: 5 out of 5