Jack, Marilynne Robinson. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2020
Summary: The story of an inter-racial love affair between Jack Ames Boughton and Della Miles, and Jack’s struggle to find grace.
We first met Jack Ames Boughton and his then-common-law wife Della Miles and their son Robert in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. They flee to Gilead, hoping to find refuge in an era where inter-racial marriage was not merely disapproved of but illegal. Jack, a minister’s son always has lived under a cloud–a petty thief who had impregnated and then abandoned a young woman who fled to Chicago.
Jack picks up the story after that episode and narrates the story of the forbidden love that grew between Jack and Della. After a stint in prison for a theft he hadn’t committed, he returns to St. Louis where he encounters Della when he retrieves school papers that slip out of her grasp in a rainstorm. They develop a deeper relationship after improbably spending a night locked inside a cemetery–a long night of conversation, a relationship knit together by a common love of literature. She knows something of his questionable background, seeing the debt-collectors that dog his tracks, the scar on his cheek that hadn’t been there before.
That is hardly the only impediment they face. Della Miles is the daughter of a bishop in father’s denomination–a group committed to black separatism, an effort to achieve respectable lives without outside help from whites. She is a high school teacher, a respectable position. An affair with a white man is illegal, threatens her job, and faces the staunch disapproval of her family.
Jack wrestles with the tension between reforming his life, working as a shoe salesman and dance partner rather than turning back to his old ways. He struggles between breaking off the affair and his attraction to her, which she returns until they become lovers.
He lives under the cloud of his apostate life as a “son of perdition” who longs for grace but doesn’t believe it is possible, and who messes up everything he touches. His brother Teddy maintains the tenuous tie with his family, leaving envelopes of money for a brother who never quite seems to be able to make it on his own. This “grace” only seems to remind him of all the ways his life has been a disappointment. Della represents a longed-for love, but for Jack it is never simple. This love brings further heartbreak, yet seems preferable to attempting to reform one’s life alone.
Robinson offers a story that doesn’t neatly tie up all the loose threads. We long for Jack to sort out his life without Della. Then we long for a wonderful story of racial reconciliation. None of that happens. The choices of love, of finding grace for these two are complicated. We’ve known people for whom life has gone hard, despite their deepest desires otherwise. Jack gives us an unsettling narrative, framed in the Jim Crow South, exploring an old theme of forbidden love.