Though her books are imbued with an old-fashioned Protestant ethic, Marilynne Robinson, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead, is uncomfortable with too much talk about morality. It is, she says, a word that can be easily misused, and Robinson — whose writing has been described as "beautiful, shimmering, precise" — is nothing if not careful with words.
Robinson first won literary fame with her novel Housekeeping, which was set in Idaho where she grew up. But for most of the past 20 years she has been teaching at the University of Iowa's famed writers workshop, and during that time she has fallen in love with the rolling fields and small towns that are sprinkled throughout the Iowa countryside. Her latest novels, Gilead and Home, are both set in the same small town.
"There is a definite Iowa aesthetic," says Robinson. "It's sort of modest and optimistic. I think people forget in the metropolitan areas of the country that the country really is largely made up of small towns that function well for the most part."
Robinson's fictional town is called Gilead, a name fairly common among early 19th century American towns because, as Robinson says, people settling this country "had these Utopian intentions. They were going to create a place where there was balm ... the pain of other civilizations would be answered."
The biblical overtones inherent in the name Gilead are no accident — Robinson's writing is strongly influenced by her own faith. Raised a Presbyterian, she became interested in Congregationalism while studying about 19th century American writers in college and is now a longtime member of the Congregational United Church of Christ in Iowa City.
But though Robinson sometimes refers to herself as a "Christian writer," she adds, "I wouldn't necessarily start to write books that are 'Christian' in the sense that they wouldn't be meaningful to any other category of people." Instead, she says, "when I draw on my own deeper resources, this interest of mine certainly emerges."
Gilead and Home focus on two ministers who have been best friends since childhood and are now close to death. Both books tell the story of a prodigal son from different perspectives. Robinson says she chose the parable of the prodigal son as the central theme of the novel because it is so powerful. She sees it as story about love.
"It's about the fact that love is not earned," she says. "[It] is one of Jesus' most radical parables because it completely overturns all notions of deserving, all notions of how you are scoring relative to other people in life."
Robinson says that although she enjoys exploring theological questions in her work, she doesn't need — nor does she set out to find — the answers. Instead, she's content to ponder the mysteries of faith from her quiet perch in the nation's heartland.
Read a Review of 'Home'Reviewer Lizzie Skurnick says that Home features a less meditative tone than Gilead — which suits the book's younger characters well. Read the full review or an excerpt of the book.
Sequels and prequels abound in literature, but Home, Marilynne Robinson's third novel in nearly 30 years, brings us a rarer animal: the novel that returns to the characters, time and place of a past work, but from a different character's point of view.
Robinson's Gilead, winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize, brought us the figure of John Ames, a preacher in 1960s-era Kansas who examined the dark complications of faith and free will in a long letter to Robby, the nearly 7-year-old son of his late marriage. Home, in turn, centers on Ames' best friend, Boughton, and two of his children: ne'er-do-well Jack and his younger sister, Glory.
After a crime- and crisis-filled childhood — in which Glory was often left to pick up the pieces — Jack returns home to take care of his aging father. The return of the prodigal alarms Ames, who fears Jack's influence on young Robby and on Ames' new wife, Lily. But nothing is as it seems, and Jack's journey is less about willful destruction than it is about truth seeking and shaking off rootlessness.
In Gilead, Robinson's slow, meditative prose suited the elderly Ames' voice and ruminations, which seemed to push into the past as if through dark water. Home is a faster and choppier read, with short bursts of darkly ironic dialogue that suit its younger protagonists. After a grilling by Glory about his history of chasing women only to manipulate them, Jack responds that he'd collapse without Glory's love and support. "Well, Jack," she replies, thinking of her own runaway fiance, "I don't think I need to tell you where I've heard that before."
If Gilead was about tests of faith, Home is about where, and what happens when, one searches for redemption. Readers who enjoyed the stately, philosophical pace of Gilead may be surprised to find themselves in a house with two squabbling siblings, their fears and angers as raw as if they were still teenagers.
Readers may also be surprised, after Gilead's timeless quality, to find themselves in a novel very much of its time, filled with conversations about the Civil Rights movement instead of deep thoughts about, for example, the atheist philosopher Feuerbach.
But what remains is Gilead's sense of how character, however unkindly, determines one's fate, which in Home arrives silently but powerfully, like a glacier leaving a raw gash in the landscape. Robinson's output may also be glacial, but the force her words leave in her wake is unmistakable.