Robinson, Morrison, America and "The Word"

For Robinson "the word" is a spiritual vessel

For Robinson "the word" is a spiritual vessel

By Donna Bailey Nurse


Marilynne Robinson

Harper Collins


Maybe because I was enrolled in Sunday School about the same time I fell in love with books, starting in on Bible stories about the same time I encountered Anne Shirley and Nancy Drew -and from that time reading fiction and the Testaments practically side by side -  I make little distinction between the secular word and the sacred. “The word” to me is primarily a spiritual vessel and whenever I read a book, I tend to seek the sacred in it. Novelist Marilynne Robinson ardently encourages this impulse; her writing also satisfies it most profoundly. In Robinson’s hands the simplest words and phrases elicit a sublime spiritual thrill, while her renderings of commonplace occurrence and dowdy histories quake with Biblical power.


Robinson is the author of several novels including the Pulitzer Prize winning Gilead in which an aging widower, Reverend John Ames, remarries late in life. His much younger wife gives him a son; as with Abraham in the Bible, Ames’ dream of fatherhood is ultimately fulfilled.Gilead is the epistle the ailing pastor writes to the child he will never see grow up. It is a history of his abolitionist forebears, leavened with earthly insights and Godly wisdom; a book of proverbs passed down from father to son.


Lila, the woman Ames marries is the eponymous heroine of Robinson’s latest book, the third in a trilogy. She also appears in Home, Robinson’s second novel about Ames and his friend Reverend Boughton, set in fictional Gilead, Iowa.  We have met her before, then, through the bashful, adoring eyes of her elderly husband; we have noted the earthy vernacular that contrasts sharply with her husband’s cultivated tones and perceived her terrible unease with her new status as pastor’s wife. Lila, it turns out, is not only significantly younger than her husband, she is of a decidedly lower class.


These facts emerge between the lines of Gilead. Even so, the coarse details of Lila, the story of a woman born into abject poverty and raised on the crumbling edge of society, comes as something of a shock. Lila is little more than a toddler, dying of fever and neglect in a foster family when she is kidnapped by Doll, a mysterious woman with a knife in her sock and a scar on her face.  When Doll takes Lila, it gives them both somebody to love. The pair become attached to a band of drifters who travel the rural Midwest of the 1920s working as day labourers.  Staying on the move helps Doll elude members of Lila’s family who seek revenge for the theft of their unwanted child. At the same time, farm work keeps these labourers close to the land they love. While they are reviled by townspeople for their illiteracy and lack, they take pride in their independence.


Work meant plenty to eat and a few pennies for candy or ribbons or a dime for a minstrel show when they passed through a town. They never camped by a stream without bathing and washing their clothes if the weather was good and they could stay long enough to let things dry. That was before the times when they began to be caught in the dust and it would make them cough and cough and the wind would blow it right through the clothes on their backs. But in those days they were proud people. If they could, they patched and mended and hemmed whatever needed it. They looked after what they had. Anybody could see that.


Weaving between past, present and future, the novel retraces the dismantling of this migrant family, the violent loss of Lila’s beloved surrogate mother Doll, and the meandering steps that lead her to the church in Gilead where Pastor Ames falls in love at first sight. Lila is a love story, concerned with the promise of happily ever after on Earth and in Heaven as well. It asks about the possibility of redemption for those who have lived harsh, squalid lives. As is often the case, Lila’s poverty is accompanied by cruelty. She has been abandoned several times: By her birth parents, by the band of migrant workers and even by Doll. She is repeatedly forced to fend for herself. For one long miserable passage she is reduced to the whorehouse. During another she squats in a ramshackle cabin on the outskirts of town. It is from this destitute location that she begins her weekly treks into Gilead.  


Robinson’s delineation of poverty, ostracization and loneliness are sad, strangely beautiful and matter-of-fact. Also excruciating - partly because these states are rendered intimately from the inside out and partly because this historical novel feels so now. It arouses an awkward self-consciousness in the reader about contemporary issues of poverty and class. 


As with Toni Morrison, Robinson’s preoccupation is the nation, a theme highlighted during the brief period Lila attends school:

“The United States of America, she brought that home with her one day,” is how Lila learns that the vast fields they work and roam constitute a country. Of course, “The United States of America,” is not just a place, it is an idea - about freedom and opportunity. It is a self-defined Christian nation with a Christian injunction to help the poor.


Like Morrison, Robinson draws parallels between poverty and slavery. Stealing an abused child, she suggests, is tantamount to abetting a runaway slave; it’s the right thing to do. Analogies of poverty and racism often feel awkward---like comparing apples and oranges.  But Robinson ultimately parallels two types of oppression- racial and economic and the compromising of two American values - freedom and opportunity - which unfold for her along a historical continuum.


Lila attempts to reconcile her former harsh existence with that of her new faith filled life, “the balm in Gilead”. Her husband, who “prays without ceasing” is a true man of God. She peppers him with questions about the unfairness of life. But he has very few answers. When Lila learns Doll may not be welcomed in Heaven, she heads to the river to rinse off her baptism. She aims to wash away her very salvation, even it means separation in the afterlife from the man she loves.


Rather than reconciling her to her husband, then, Christianity threatens to push them apart and even the Reverend realizes if Lila were not pregnant she may well have returned to her wandering ways. Lila is a lot like Toni Morrison’s wild, white women: The addled Sorrow from A Mercy and the white girl in Beloved who helps Sethe deliver her baby.


Still, Lila reads her Bible every day. She copies out salient passages and meditates on them at length. She takes the word literally: Doll is not like the angel who arrives in the wilderness, Doll is the angel who arrives in the wilderness. Lila makes little distinction between the secular word and the sacred, claiming everything she hears is a story.


Robinson emphasizes the sacred power of ordinary words. The migrant workers literally "reap and sow". The most spiritually evocative word in the novel is "dirt". The soiled hands and dirty clothing the townspeople so disdain reflect the labourers' connection to God's good earth.


Robinson’s bond with Toni Morrison grows ever deeper. This book feels almost like an homage to the older writer. Lila echoes the music of Morrison and structurally the plot, like Morrison’s, spirals round the cataclysmic event at its heart. Morrison is a writer obsessed with the artefact that is the word, which she divines as a vessel containing African American culture. For Robinson, the word is a vessel containing the sacred mysteries of faith- and with Lila, her cup runneth over.