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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

Former President Obama, who reads and writes fine prose, appreciates Marilynne Robinson.

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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