Summary of Marilynne Robinson, Home (2008)
This is the second book in Robinson’s trilogy that began with Gilead (2004) and ended with Lila (2014). All the action takes place in and around the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa, a town in the southwestern corner of the state. Two aging ministers, one Presbyterian and one Congregational, live as neighbors. Their wives are both deceased and they both tend small flocks of the faithful at their respective churches in town. The time setting is the 1950s.The Congregational minister is John Ames, whose story comprised Gilead. That book is essentially a long love letter to his infant son Robby, who shows up in Home at five years old. At seventy, John Ames has found the love of his life, a much younger woman named Lila, who comes to his church one stormy night. The two marry, in spite of their age difference and cultural backgrounds, and a son is born. Ames knows he will not live much longer, so he writes the letter to inform his son, when he is old enough to read it, of his life, ancestry and times.
The Novel Home, on the other hand, is the story of events in the parsonage of Rev. Robert Boughton, the Congregational minister. Since the two books, Gilead and Home, cover contemporaneous matters, there is some telling of the same tales but from different perspectives. Boughton and Ames, the two ministers, are best of friends, and their conversations on the meaning of various Biblical doctrines and stories are extremely well thought through. Marilynne Robinson is no theological lightweight, unlike many contemporary Christian novelists.
Rev. Robert Boughton is dying, and his daughter Glory comes home to care for him. She is 38 with a murky past and has become something of a spinster. Boughton has several other children, some quite successful. But he also has an enigmatic son, Jack, who was his most troublesome child and has not been home for twenty years. But Jack has always been the Reverend’s favorite child. Jack’s life too is murky, but he is a brilliant man who seems hunted by someone or something. It turns out that he is indeed a fugitive, not form the law, but from a love affair he had with a black woman in St. Louis. He comes home to sort out his life, and he and Glory form a strong bond with one another. His coming home is preceded by a letter, but his later departure, though long expected by his father and sister, still seems sudden.
Jack Boughton is a modern prodigal son, and his story, temptations and character are what this book is all about. There is not much of a plot, but the book moves along, borne aloft by Robinson’s exquisite prose and her keen insights into human nature.
Glory, the baby of the family, spends her days with her father reliving old memories. “But oh, the evenings were long. I am thirty-eight years old, she would say to herself, as she tidied up after supper. I have a master’s degree. I taught high school English for thirteen years. I was a good teacher. What have I done with my life? What has become of it? It is as if I had a dream of adult life and woke up from it, still here in my parents’ house.”
The letter arrives from Jack that he, too, is coming home. All of Boughton’s kids have longstanding grievances with Jack, who was a dark and sometimes cruel adolescent. Glory tells herself not to be angry. “She reminded herself of this because Jack would probably be insufferable and she had spent all her patience elsewhere.” They had fought as children. But when Jack shows up some months later, he is deferential, polite and somewhat gallant. As they adjust to one another, she realizes that neither of them had intended to be there, but had both turned up at this time due to some divine force. The two warm up to one another; she takes to gardening, he to cultivating the irises and repairing an old DeSoto in the barn.
Gradually, Glory, for all her inbred piety, realizes that she is not so different from Jack, that they are both fugitives. They are both keenly aware of the meaninglessness of their lives, both long to find that meaning in coming home, and both fearful that it will once again elude them. Thinking of the Bible one day, Glory muses: “What a strange old book it was. How oddly holiness situated itself among the things of the world… It expresses the will of God to sustain us in this flesh, in this life. Weary or bitter or bewildered as we may be, God is faithful. He lets us wander so we’ll know what it means to come home.”
Jack and Glory talk about religious things, and he confesses to a certain spiritual hunger, and asks if Glory, who was always the religious one, is going to try and save his soul. After a little banter, he says: “It is possible to know the great truths without feeling the truth of them. That’s where the problems lies. In my case.” Glory ponders the conversation, and thinks to herself, “he was so practiced at reciting what he was also practiced at rejecting.”
One evening, the neighbor Rev. Ames, who was Jack’s godfather, came to dinner with his wife Lila and their son Robby. Jack was nervous all day, not sure how he would get on with Ames, with whom he had had frank words in the past, and from whom he had once stolen a baseball mitt. As they all sat down for dinner, Ames asked old Boughton to offer the prayer, and Boughton referred it back to Ames. There was a silence, and then Jack spoke up. He had prepared a table grace and asked if he might say it. “Jack glanced at Ames, who shrugged, and he began to read. ‘Dear Father,’ he said. He paused and studied the paper, leaning into the candlelight. ‘My handwriting is very poor. I crossed some things out. ‘You are patient and gracious far beyond our deserving.’ He cleared his throat. ‘You let us hope for your forgiveness when we can find no way to forgive ourselves. You bless our lives even when we have shown ourselves to be utterly ungrateful and unworthy. May we be strengthened and renewed, to make us less unworthy of blessing, through these your gifts of sustenance, of friendship and family’. And then, ‘In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.’”
Jack is full of unexpected admissions and confessions, and he and his sister learn to love each other more as the days pass. One day, following the church service held by Rev. Ames which Jack had attended, he was approached by Glory in the barn. He was sitting dejected in the old DeSoto. It seemed to Jack that Ames had taken a potshot at him in his sermon. “Consider our situation, Glory,” he said. “Two middle-aged people in decent health, sane and civilized, generally well disposed toward the world—perhaps I am only speaking for myself here—sitting in an abandoned DeSoto in an empty barn, pondering one more thoroughly predictable and essentially meaningless defeat. Does that strike you as odd?”
Jack has a self-effacing humor that is low key and mildly ironic. But he often expresses the feelings of his sister more clearly than she can herself. He is the voice of the fugitive in many of us, the sense that we are both guilty of something and vulnerable to something beyond our control. He enjoys putting unanswerable philosophical questions to the two old reverends.
As the months pass, both father and son seem to decline into weariness and a sense of death. The early bonhomie fades. Old Boughton begins to be slightly confused, and Jack becomes more devious and flip. Glory observes it, and suggests various remedies But nothing seems to be working. Jack is aware of his influence on the home, but he also seems unable to please his father or leave. He comes home drunk one night and brings all of this to a head. But old Boughton’s increasing senility means he has little memory of the recent confrontation, and he asks Jack to play “Softly and Tenderly” on the piano. The old pastor knows he is dying, and his senility grows worse as the days progress. Jack and Glory decide to call the siblings and let them know their father doesn’t have much time left. Jack agrees to stay with Glory until shortly before the others arrive and then be on his way, aware that his presence will disturb the family.
Jack goes next door for one more conversation with Ames, an event covered in some detail in the first book Gilead. Jack says little about it, but Glory finds him playing a hymn on the piano and takes comfort in that. A woman, Della Miles, had been part of their many conversations. In some way, she and Jack were connected back in St. Louis, or perhaps Memphis. Jack had sent her many letters, but they all came back unopened. One day, Glory picked up the mail and there was a letter for Jack from Della. He read it and let everyone know that the time for his leaving was coming soon. He would leave as soon as Teddy, an older son and a doctor, had arrived.
In the meantime, he had gotten the old DeSoto running, and so he took Glory and old Boughton for a spin around Gilead. Then they all went to bed. In the morning Glory came into the kitchen and Jack was there in a suit (people traveled in suits in those days) with his suitcase. “Now you know where to come when you need help,” Glory told him. “Yes,” he replied. “Ye who are weary, come home.” Jack said his goodbyes, took $40 that Glory offered him, and set off. “He was too thin and his clothes were weary, weary. There was nothing of youth about him, only the transient vigor of a man acting on a decision he refused to reconsider or regret. No, there might have been some remnant of the old aplomb. Who would bother to be kind to him? A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and as one from whom men hide their face. Ah, Jack.”
I won’t spoil things by giving you the final scene,, but it brings many things together in this most wonderfully mystifying of books. Glory’s final thoughts at the end are: The Lord is Wonderful.