Review: Jack

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.

Review: Lila


LilaMarilynne Robinson. New York: Picador, 2014.

Summary: The story of the unlikely marriage between Lila, a homeless drifter, and Rev. John Ames, a widowed older pastor.

“And as for thy nativity, in the day thou wast born thy navel was not cut, neither wast thou washed in water to cleanse thee; thou wast not salted at all, nor swaddled at all. No eye pitied thee, to do any of these things unto thee, to have compassion upon thee; but thou wast cast out in the open field, for that thy person was abhorred, in the day that thou wast born. And when I passed by thee, and saw thee weltering in thy blood, I said unto thee, Though thou art in thy blood, live; yea, I said unto thee, Though thou art in thy blood, live.” (Ezekiel 16:4-6, American Standard Version)

These verses and the remainder of Ezekiel 16 are ones to which Lila is strangely drawn when she begins reading the Bible she took from the pews of John Ames church. The verses, really a parable of Israel, seem to parallel her life, and perhaps more than she knows.

Lila was a neglected toddler, stolen away from her family by Doll, which probably saved her life. They fell in with other drifters on the road during the Depression and became fiercely loyal to one another. Eventually Doll is in a knife fight where she kills a man, possibly Lila’s father, nearly dies, but eventually escapes custody and disappears. Lila drifts to St. Louis, works for a time in a house of ill repute, and then flees the city with a woman returning to Iowa and ends up in a shack near Gilead, Iowa. One Sunday, she wanders into the church of Rev. John Ames, an older, widowed pastor. And so begins a relationship, a searching dialogue between the two with questions like “why do things happen the way they do?” He and the church help her out and give her work. She asks him to baptize her. She tends the grave of his wife, cultivating roses. At one point Ames thanks her for caring for the grave and wishes there were something he could do for her. She says, “You ought to marry me.” and he answers, “Yes, you’re right. I will.”

And so begins a most unusual marriage, where Lila, who has never trusted anyone but Doll, must somehow believe this man really loves her. The beauty of the story is that he does, and yet gives her the room to believe it for herself. And in the midst of it all, she finds herself pregnant with his child. Much of the story is her reflections on being the motherless child, and her life on the road as the months of her pregnancy progress, interwoven with the careful, tender love of Ames, never forced, but ever present; fearing she might leave, yet never compelling her to stay, but simply offering his love, his home, and himself.

Robinson uses the device of telling the story of her former life as memories Lila reflects upon as she embarks on this new life with Ames. She muses on the strange, dangerous, and sometimes unseemly life she has lived even as she wrestles with the possibility of having really found a home, a love with this man, and that she can be the mother she never had apart from Doll. The answer to her question of why things happen they way they do must remain somehow with the sovereign God, but the working out of the way things happen is a story of grace, the discovering of an incomprehensible but unwavering love.

The third of the “Gilead” stories, Lila explores the deepest questions of existence and the searching question of how far may grace reach. Can it reach Lila? Doll? And what about us the readers? It’s worth reading to find out.