I thought DeSoto might be incantatory in Marilynne Robinson's Home. It is.
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.
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.
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.