Weary, or bitter or bewildered as you may be, please do not assail the author and teacher…
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.