Full disclosure: Marilynne Robinson's Gilead is one of my favorite novels of all time, so I'm hardly coming to its companion, Home, with fresh eyes. I was nervous about starting Home, as a matter of fact: nervous it wouldn't live up to Gilead's precedent, and that I would inevitably be disappointed, even with a very good book. In fact, that wasn't what happened at all. For one thing, despite its relative lack of action, I absolutely could not put down Home and read it in just a few days. For another, I found that the two novels speak to each other in unique and thought-provoking ways. They are very different, and much of what I found magical about Gilead is absent from Home. Yet Home gave me a new perspective on the story I first heard in Gilead; and on finishing it, I'm almost convinced to privilege the second telling despite being seduced by the style of its brother. The first book, interestingly, is a closing, a coming-to-terms with a full life about to end, in which old demons are acknowledged and absorbed in the overflowing of new love. The second is a continuous and desperate struggle, very much engaged, still, in the business of living in the flawed and often cruel world.

Both novels are set in the same place, over the same stretch of time. In a small Iowa town in the mid-1950's, two minister friends are growing old: John Ames, the Congregationalist minister, and Robert Boughton, the former leader of the Presbyterian flock.

There were so many jokes between them. Once when they were boys in seminary they were walking across a bridge, arguing about some point of doctrine. A wind had blown her father's hat into the water, and he had rolled up his pant legs and walked in the river after it, not gaining on it at all, still disputing, as it sailed along in the current. "I was winning that argument!" her father said.

"Well, I was laughing too hard to keep up my side of it." The hat finally caught on a snag, and that was the whole story, but it always made them laugh. The joke seemed to be that once they were very young and now they were very old, and that they had been the same day after day and were somehow at the end of it all so utterly changed.

Ames is the narrator of Gilead, and one of the most stunning things about that book is his wise, lyrical narrative voice. He's wrapping up loose ends the best he can, and preparing for death: he finds himself, at the end of his life, unexpectedly married, with a young son, and the purpose of his narrative is to relay the story of the Ames family to his child, so young Robby will know his roots. It's an extremely intimate narration, infused with love and quietness. Even as it tells of the past theological struggles in the Ames family, between John's father and grandfather during the time of the Civil War, the current John Ames speaks out of calm, in the last stages of making peace with his life.

Home, on the other hand, while also quiet by most standards, is told in a third-person narration that centers on a trio, not a single person. Just down the street from Ames and his young wife and son, his old friend Reverend Boughton welcomes his middle-aged daughter Glory, who is leaving her own disappointed hopes in order to care for her father in his old age. Shortly thereafter, the Reverend's best-loved and prodigal son Jack also returns, "to stay awhile." Both brother and sister have secrets, wounds from their former lives which they hold close to themselves and only gradually reveal to one another. And even though the Reverend is nearing the end of his life, just like his old friend, he doesn't seem to have Ames' peace. He is tortured with guilt and worry over the unresolved grief in his life, and his inability to come to terms with Jack's mistakes - either to forgive his son, or to stop loving him. Neither is he able to engage with the struggles in Jack's own life that are tormenting him, and thereby achieve the connection with his son that he so craves. For those who come to Home from Gilead, and therefore know what Jack is keeping from his family, there are many heartbreaking moments between father and son, in which the reader knows that the stakes are much higher - or, at least different, more complicated - than Reverend Boughton realizes:

     Jack watched him for a moment. Then he said, "I heard you all laughing about that magazine. It's pretty foolish, all in all. Could I see it for a second? Thanks. I thought he made one interesting point in here somewhere, though. He said the seriousness of American Christianity was called into question by our treatment of the Negro. It seems to me that there is something to be said for that idea."
     Boughton said, "Jack's been looking at television."
     "Yes, I have. And I have lived in places where there are Negro people. They are very fine Christians, many of them."
     Boughton said, "Then we can't have done so badly by them, can we? That is the essential thing."
     Jack looked at him, then he laughed. "I'd say we've done pretty badly. Especially by Christian standards. As I understand them." Jack sank back into his chair as if he were the most casual man on earth and said, "What do you think, Reverend Ames."
     Ames looked at him. "I have to agree with you. I'm not really familiar with the issue. I haven't been following the news as closely as I once did. But I agree."
     "It isn't exactly news--" Jack smiled and shook his head. "Sorry, Reverend," he said. Robby brought the tractor to show him, let him work the steering wheel, ran the tractor along the arm and over the back of the chair.
     Boughton said, "I don't believe in calling anyone's religion into question because he has certain failings. A blind spot or two. There are better ways to talk about these things."

One of the things I love about both versions of the Gilead/Home story is the complex way it's engaged with issues of race: even in this rural, middle-American town (so homogeneous that Glory says "There aren't any colored people in Gilead"), the scars of American racial cruelty reach deep into both the Ames and Boughton stories, estranging fathers and sons throughout the generations. This seems to me a profound truth about oppression: Martin Luther King said, famously, that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, and Robinson makes the point that injustice anywhere is also a threat to human connection, to communion among family members, even those living sheltered lives hundreds of miles away from the apparent sites of conflict.

But she also portrays how complicated it is even to address, let alone resolve, these issues, because they involve different versions of "right" colliding. Reverend Boughton, Jack and Glory are all sympathetic characters who love each other - and that can only get them so far. Not to go on a name-dropping extravaganza, but I think it was Hegel who pointed out that tragic conflict is often not the collision of Right and Wrong, but of Right and Right: two different sets of priorities and principles, two parties acting according to their consciences, are unable to budge from the collision course they've set. By these standards Home isn't an unmitigated tragedy: the characters, through their quiet struggles, are able to approach one another more closely and come to some degree of peace before the story ends. But there is a tragic underpinning, a gulf between these people that cannot be wholly traversed. Throughout it all, though, Robinson is so perceptive and subtle in her depictions, and so lyrical in her prose, that the elements of tragedy and quiet triumph come together in a work of great beauty.

(Home was my ninth book for the Orbis Terrarum Challenge, representing the United States. Specifically, Iowa.)


  • These books sound wonderful, and the way you write about them is exciting - I'm very eager to find them, and the time to read them... :) The ideas you've mentioned here are the kind that have fascinated me ever since leaving home and the super religious background I come from - the concept of "right" and "right" colliding is something I've witnessed pretty vividly. Thanks for another thought-provoking and lovely review Emily!

  • I'm not really familiar with this author, but I'll have to keep her on my radar now that you've vouched for her so eloquently. You're not helping me whittle down my TBR list much these days, though!

  • This sounds great. I loved Gilead too, and so it's only a matter of time before I get to this one. In fact, it might be a good idea to reread Gilead at the same time I read Home, just to be able to put everything together clearly.

  • I was so in love with Gilead, too, but was afraid to touch Home after reading several reviews saying it's just the same story, nothing new, etc. But I've been so tempted and in fact have been caressubg and picking up and putting back down and feeling a copy of it on the shelves of a bookstore I went to the other day, lol.

    You know, this is just the push I need to finally pick it up. Have you read Housekeeping?

  • Sarah: I'll be so curious to hear your thoughts about these when/if you get around to reading them. I come from a very NONreligious background, but to me they ring very true. I'd be interested to see if you felt the same.

    Richard: Hey, I'm just trying to keep up with all the amazing Spanish-language additions you've made to my TBR. :-)

  • Dorothy: I think that's a great idea! I wouldn't say you NEED to be familiar with Gilead to enjoy Home, but there were a couple of points at which I wished I remembered the specifics of the first book better than I did.

    Claire: Oh, I don't think it's "same old thing, nothing new" at all! Even though it features the same events, I think the two books are "about" really different things - one's about looking back, and the other's about struggling forward. I bet you would love Home!

  • Oh, and no, I haven't read Housekeeping yet, but it's waiting on my to-be-read shelf! I know I'll love it.

  • Emily - Robinson is one of my favorite authors, I loved Gilead and I have a review copy of Home to read so I haven't read your review yet. I'm sure it is wonderful. Have you read Housekeeping? There are scenes from that book that are still in my head after 25 years.

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography