Tuesday, April 7, 2009

"Home" by Marilynne Robinson

For the past month the on-line book club in which I participate has read Marilynne Robinson’s novel, “Home”. It’s a book that any Midwestern religious person with a fondness for small towns (me) would grow to love and especially savor. Robinson recently wrote “Gilead.” Both are set in the small, Iowa town of Gilead.

In “Gilead” Ames, a dying congregational pastor, wrote a letter to his son. The book chronicled Ames’ past, in particular the story of Ames’ grandfather, a radical abolitionist.

“Home” took place at the same time as “Gilead.” “Home” was a story about the family of one of Ames’ best friend. The patriarch of that family was Robert Boughton, a retired and dying Presbyterian pastor. In “Home” Boughton’s youngest daughter, Glory, comes to her childhood home in Gilead to take care of Boughton. While doing this the prodigal son of the family, Jack, comes back after disappearing for 20 years to live in the family home. In the setting of small town Iowa the story of “Home” is how Boughton, Glory, Jack, and Ames come to terms with their past relationships and grow to a new understanding of who they are in relationship to each other.

I couldn’t help but read “Home” through a family systems perspective. Boughton, Glory, and Jack tip toed around Jack’s rebellious past. While a teenager Jack fathered a daughter. He soon left Gilead, the daughter died of illness, and Boughton and Glory to an extent were left to pick up the pieces. That event—as an example of Jack’s rebelliousness—was the white elephant in the room that no one could honestly and openly discuss. Boughton couldn’t understand why Jack was who he was; Glory was angry with Jack for what he did, but was not able to completely share her anger; Jack never thought too much about that event and didn’t understand why he didn’t.

I particularly enjoyed “Home” because of Robinson’s craft as a writer. The plot was slow moving, but Robinson seemed able to clearly display what was going on underneath the slow action. In one example she wrote for pages about how Boughton’s family prepared for a dinner party with Ames and his family. Every small detail had meaning—the selection of Boughton’s tie, what Jack wore, when Jack came to dinner. The pace in the story and for the reader is far from the instant gratification of the Facebook age. So little happened in the story, so much happened below the surface—it was life in a Protestant, Midwestern, small town in the late 50’s.

“Home” is a big to savor. Pick it up, find a quiet place, and let your mind wander off to the setting and story Robinson beautifully described.

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