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Although I feel disappointed to have attracted few readers for my postings on this unique contemporary American writer, today a reader wrote to me about Lila. She mentioned an address on "mind, conscience, and soul," that Robinson gave in California in 2017, in which she discussed 'Being as emergent'. She related this idea through the 18th century evangelist, Jonathan Edwards. He articulated for Robinson something she had always felt: "That, at any moment the luminousness of the world could be revoked but is instead sustained."


"I think this is what Robinson is getting at with Lila," the reader wrote." Abandoned to a hardscrabble life, with only the security of Doll, who stole her as an infant", Lila eventually ends up in Iowa, after riding from St. Louis with two different strangers, sharing the cost of gas with one of them. In Gilead, where she ends up by accident, she eventually meets John Ames and "peppers the Reverend with questions…many that he can't answer."


The reader asks: "How can you not love Lila? Her experience is so genuine and stripped down, full of hope and faith in herself." Reading these welcome words, I thought of a favorite scene in Lila. I'll quote some of it from 82 to 84, though the entire scene extends to page 90. The setting is a river close to a small, abandoned shack where Lila is living.


"So she spent the next day at the river. She sat down on a rock and dropped a fishing line into the water. She had brought her tablet and pencil and her Bible. Ezekiel said….


"The shadows had moved and the bugs were beginning to bother, so she found a sunnier place. There were huckleberries. If she could only forget why she was there, she'd be fairly pleased with herself. One big old catfish would make it a good day. That letter (from Ames) was in the Bible. She tore it in half and put a rock on it, in a wet enough place that the ink would bleed. Dear Lila (if I may)….


"When she came up the bank from the river, she saw him standing in the road, about halfway between her and that damn shack. So there she was, Bible in one hand, catfish jumping on a line in the other, barefoot, and he turned and saw her. He started walking toward her. She couldn't think what else to do, so she waited where she was. He didn't speak until he was close to her, and then he didn't speak, still deciding what to say.


He said, “I know you don’t like visitors, but I wanted to talk to you. I wasn't actually coming to your house. But I hoped I might see you. I want to give you something. Of course, you are under no obligation to accept it. It belonged to my mother." He was holding it in his hand, a locket on a chain. "I should have found a box for it." Then he said, "We spoke about marriage. I haven't seen you since then. I don't know if you meant what you said. I thought I'd ask. I understand if you've changed your mind. I'm old. An old man. I'm very much aware of that." He shrugged." But if we're engaged, I want to give you something. And if we're not, I want you to have it anyway."

"Well," she said, "I got my hands full."

He laughed. "So you have. Let me take something. A Bible!"

"I stole it. And don't go looking at my tablet."

"Sorry. Ezekiel." He laughed. "You are always surprising."

"I stole your sweater. Was that a surprise?"

"Not really. But I was glad you wanted it."

"Why?"

He said, "Well, you probably know why."

She felt her face warm. And the fish kept struggling, jumping against her leg. She said, "Damn catfish. Seems like you can never quite kill'em dead. I'm going to just put it here in the weeds for a minute." And there it was, flopping in the dust. She wiped her hands on her skirt. "I can take that chain now, whatever it is."

He said, "Excellent. I'm grateful. You should put it on. It's a little difficult to fasten. My mother always asked my father to do it for her."

Lila said, 'Is that a fact," and handed it back to him.

He studied her for a moment, and then he said, "You'll have to do something with your hair. If you could lift it up." So she did, and he stepped behind her, and she felt the touch of his fingers at her neck, trembling, and the small weight of the locket falling into place. Then they stood there together in the road, in the chirping, rustling silence and the sound of the river."


I suggest an article about Robinson, “Book of Revelation” in the New Yorker's October 5th, 2020, edition. The author, Casey Cep, writes that President Obama quoted Robinson from one of her letters to him, when he gave the eulogy for Clementa Pinckney, one of nine persons murdered by a white supremacist, the year after Lila was published in 2014. What President Obama said that day in Charleston speaks to the shocking, horrific scenes in Washington, D.C. on January 6th.


Next week: Thoughts on how Marilynne Robinson captures the ineffable in language.

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I had this thought years ago, at the very end of the sixth hour of 'teaching' three Marilynne Robinson novels to aging adults: Housekeeping, Gilead, and Home.

In the third novel, Robinson uses a repeated Ah: ah tears, ah well, ah Glory, ah Jack, which for me suggests the necessity of resigning oneself to Mystery. This includes characters we meet in life, as well as in literary novels! And Jack Boughton, the Prodigal Son, is a painful mystery.

My own 'Ah, no' moment came at the end of class that final afternoon. One student declared loudly: "What a stupid ending (Home). Why does Robinson mock the boy? Who talks that way? 'I might could.' She makes him sound ignorant. Is Robinson racist?"


"Don't criticize what you can't understand." I repeated that line from Crosby, Stills and Nash more than once to high school students long ago when the rock group was popular. And I felt like singing it that day at the old Lancaster Library. How could I? I did not claim to understand Robinson's ending to Home either. But the comment about racism was ludicrous and suggested superficial reading.


A reader only understands in the novel's last few pages who Jack's love is, in terms of Della's race; and that his son Robert is named after Jack's father, the Presbyterian minister we tediously live with in Home. Yet a reader will not miss an old plot device: of star-crossed lovers missing each other. Della arrives in Gilead shortly after Jack has left the small Iowa town by bus. And a reader will recognize that Della and her sister (the driver) feel an urgent need to get out of Iowa and back to Missouri before dark. Iowa, once the Shining Star of Radicalism, as Jack quips at one point. The time is the 1950s and segregated schools: Glory has been teaching English literature to whites; Della is an English teacher in a black high school in St. Louis. A reader will come to know Della in the recently published, Jack. And at the end of Home, there is the sense that Robinson is not finished with the characters, Della and Lila; and sure enough, Lila was published in 2014, and Jack six years later.


What threads of thought are in my head as I quickly write these words?


After the student's outburst in 2009, I received a call late that afternoon from another student, someone I knew from my classes and a writing group. Ruby Lee, then in her 90s, had been a teacher of English, was a published poet and writer, and a fine Southern lady. She had felt my dismay, seen it in my face, and wanted me to know the woman's harsh words came from grief. She had lost her son recently and Robinson's novels had been painful to read. Because Ruby Lee was a fellow teacher, she reminded me that I ought to have kept reiterating that Robinson's method was not to plot but to follow her pen. "The end was a beginnin', darlin'." And she hoped to live long enough to see the novels that would follow Home. Sadly, Ruby Lee Norris missed reading Lila and Jack. Yet a brick in front of the current Lancaster Library honors this woman who was truly one of a kind and is missed by many of us in the Northern Neck.



In thinking of Kilmarnock's library, someone that I know recently found Lila there for $1.00, a signed first edition that looks as if its pages had not been turned. When I held the book yesterday at my friend's house, I recalled lines from Jack and later found the words on page 74. "To beautify, no beatify, this tedious world. I can't tell you what multitudes are unmoved."





Next time: Embodying Robinson's character, Lila, with a reassuring wonder.

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A small town in northeastern Texas has the name. The Urban Dictionary says, "I went to this crappy town DeSoto," citing a slang meaning of the word as voiding the bowels. Que mundo! A Spanish explorer, Hernando de Soto, discovered the Mississippi River. And the Chrysler Corporation used his name for its DeSoto division begun in 1928. Imagine naming a car today after a ruthless colonial plunderer. The DeSoto would not sell in Peru. Yet in 1928 the name conjured romantic exploration and adventure for an automobile in the U.S. market.

In the 1950s my father drove a DeSoto, a car that Sunkist Growers loaned its inspectors. No whitewalls or fancy chrome! But a new, mid-range car made my family look more well off than we were, though only my father was insured to drive it. (When I grew up if you had more than one bathroom and one car, you were rich, at least in the small southern California town where I lived.)

In the novel Home, set in the 1950s, the Prodigal son Jack discovers a DeSoto in the dilapidated barn on Reverend Robert Boughton's property. His sister Glory reflects that one of the three Boughton sons had given their father the DeSoto, which Jack means to get in working order. He jokes with Glory that he will drive the car to St. Louis (think Mississippi River) to get Della, the love of his life. In the last pages of the novel, Glory will learn that Della is the mother of Jack's son, Robert; that she is African American.

Ah, mystery.

Home is a novel richer with each reading. And this week, I offer not what I promised last week, but a passage about an important car, on which Jack spends endless hours, trying to restore the beast to working order. Jack loves irony, his verbal shield, and he can do to the car what he cannot do to himself.

DeSoto is incantatory in Home and essential to the novel.

The following passage from page 161 begins with capital letters, something used each time Robinson changes the setting or time frame. The novel's structure matches life in Gilead, which is continuous, as narrated in third person by Glory Boughton, age 38, the eighth child in the family, and five years younger than Jack who returns home at 43 after his twenty-year absence.


THAT AFTERNOON, WHEN SHE WAS OUT IN THE GARDEN

weeding the strawberries, picking the handful of ripe ones, she heard the DeSoto's starter straining twice, then again, and then the roar of an automobile engine, the sound robust for a moment, then trailing away. Again, the starter and the engine, and after a minute or two the rattle and pop of gravel as the DeSoto eased backward out of the barn. It gleamed darkly and demurely, like a ripe plum. Its chrome was polished, hubcaps and grille, and the side walls of the tires were snowy white. There was a preposterous beauty in all that shine that made her laugh. Jack put his arm out the window, waving his hat like a visiting dignitary, backed into the street, and floated away, gentling the gleaming dirigible through the shadows of arching elm trees, light dropping on it through their leaves like confetti as it made its ceremonious passage. After a few minutes she heard a horn, and there were Jack and the DeSoto going by the house. A few minutes more and they came back from the other direction, swung into the driveway, and idled there. Jack leaned across the front seat to open the passenger door. She walked across the lawn and slid in.

"Wonderful!"

He nodded. "We're doing all right so far. I smell strawberries."

She held out her hands. "I haven’t washed them."

He took one, eyed it, and gave it back. "How about a little spin around the block?" "Papa will want to come."

"Yes, well, I'm working up to that. I'd like to put a couple of miles on this thing, so I'll know it can be trusted. We wouldn't want to make the old fellow walk home."

So she closed the door and they pulled out into the street.

He said, "You must have a license. You used to drive."

"I do. Somewhere. Do you?"

He looked at her. "Why do you ask?"

"Never mind. Just making conversation." They completed a decorous circuit of the block, and when they pulled into the driveway, they saw their father standing in the screen door.

"Something very exciting?" he called. "I thought I might come along, if it's no trouble."

Ah, trouble. Inevitable. And next week I will address the trouble in my classroom that I was not up to writing about this final Sunday in December of 2020.



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