Every year before Christmas, I read something that can draw me closer to the meaning of the Season. Amidst the busyness of the festivities, I try to carve out a piece of quiet. I name these annual posts Reading The Season. You can click on the links at the bottom for previous entries, dating back to 2008. This year, the publication of Marilynne Robinson’s third Gilead book, Lila, is a most timely read.
Gilead (2004) – Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critic Circle Award winning novel introduces us to the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa. We hear the gentle voice of the narrator, the ageing Rev. John Ames, as he writes a letter to his seven-year-old son Robby, leaving a legacy of family heritage, love, forgiveness, and serenity.
Home (2008) – Based on the same Gilead characters, but from a different point of view allowing us privy to the household of the Rev. Robert Boughton, John Ames’s life long-friend. Glory, Boughton’s daughter, comes home to take care of her ailing father. She is there when her brother Jack returns after an absence of twenty years. The black sheep of the family, Jack’s estranged self yearns for reconciliation like a prodigal. The book, in all its complexities and depiction of alienation, escape, return and lost yet again, suggests home may not be a solace as sweet as one hopes.
Lila (2014) – Robinson’s newest, and 2014 National Book Award finalist. It is the third novel based on the characters in the town of Gilead, offering yet another point of view. But one can just read it on its own, albeit best to have read Gilead first, then the kind face of John Ames can be conjured up more readily. In this book, the perspective is from Ames’s much younger wife Lila, at first lonely and desolate, slowly drifting into place.
At the outset, we see Lila as an unwanted child, “cold”, ‘all cried out’. She is rescued by Doll, a destitute woman herself yet still has room in her heart for an abandoned little girl. Doll wraps Lila into her shawl and decides to bring her up. “Lila was the loneliest child, and there they were, the two of them together, keeping each other warm in the rain.” Lila later takes up Doll’s name as Dahl.
The two joins a small group of itinerant field workers led by Doane, living in camps out in the open. But the Depression breaks up the cohesive work party. Lila is later left on her own and for a little while, works in a brothel in St. Louis. Knowing she can’t stay there for long, she slips out one night, escaping from a blackhole of hopelessness.
After that she finds herself a cleaning job at a hotel, from which she has to escape again after seeing her nemesis whom she first encounters while in the brothel. She packs her bag and leaves town, taking rides from strangers going to wherever they drop her. Ultimately, Lila drifts to the outskirt of Gilead, finds an abandoned shack and takes shelter there. She cleans up the shack for a place to sleep, having no plans except to find odd jobs in the town yonder, earn enough money, then moves on, maybe to Sioux City.
Lila lives a life of poverty, loneliness and fear, mistrusting everyone. Doll may have been like a mother to her but she too has her own rough life and struggles. Doll knifes and kills a man who might be Lila’s own father, could well be out of protecting Lila. She is later jailed, leaving the knife in Lila’s possession. Lila keeps it with her all the years as a memento, a murder weapon, yes, but also a symbol of Doll’s loving protection and Lila’s own desolate past.
One day walking into Gilead Lila stumbles into a church to escape the rain, that is the turning point of her life. She sees the old man at the pulpit, the Rev. John Ames, and, he sees her.
We know a lot about Ames from Robinson’s first book of Gilead, set in the 1950’s. A Congregationalist pastor in the town, Ames is sixty-seven years old when he first meets Lila, “a big, silvery old man”. Coming from a family tradition of ministers, John Ames is a man with a pastor’s heart.
Ames has had his share of personal grief. He had to bear the death of his beloved wife of his youth and his newborn son as she died in childbirth. Such unspeakable pain he had shared with his best friend Robert Boughton, pastor of the Presbyterian church in Gilead.
Ames and Boughton have been life long friends. They share pastoring advice, discuss foreign policies, debate theological problems, and bear the burden of each other’s family woes. Boughton has his in his son Jack, who takes John Ames’s namesake.
After seeing Lila at the church as she comes in from the rain, Ames keeps her in his heart. Residents of Gilead befriend Lila, giving her jobs, welcoming her in their midst, but Lila is aloof and skeptical, an outsider still. Ames personally engages her to talk and to know her more. One day, he goes to seek her out at the shack. She sees him coming as she walks towards Gilead. There on the path he reaches out to her and promises marriage. An inexplicable love story takes shape.
Ames and Lila
“… the old man kept on courting her, like a boy, when she was hard and wary…”
After they are married, however incompatible it looks in Ames’s home, Lila still keeps Doll’s knife with her as a memento and as a symbol of her own tumultuous past, a part of herself. Ames is unperturbed. He lets her keep it, and he even uses it, taking it as a normal tool around the house. Total acceptance.
If condescension is present in the relationship, it is Ames who wants to learn from Lila. His utter humility is what moves her. Barely literate, Lila yearns to know about the Bible, study it and grasp its richness and meaning. They talk about the difficult books of Ezekiel and Job. Ames shares his thoughts about this elusive notion called existence, and listens attentively Lila’s perspective and experiences. Total respect.
Lila has questions rooted in her bitter past, the why’s of misfortunes, cruelty, and the hardships in life. She asks Ames with an inquiring heart. Ames, a pastor of many years, can find no easy answers. He ponders Lila’s queries, and readily and honestly admits his own limitations in knowing, while loving her all the more. Total humility.
Even after they are married, Lila sometimes still conjures up thoughts of leaving. Ames knows this and gives her the freedom:
… if you ever change your mind, I want you to leave by daylight. I want you to have a train ticket in your hand that will take you right where you want to go, and I want you to take your ring and anything else I have given you. You might want to sell it. That would be all right. It’s yours, not mine… ” He cleared this throat. “You’re my wife,” he said. “I want to take care of you, even if that means someday seeing you to the train.” He leaned forward and looked into her face, almost sternly, so she would know he meant want he said.
She chooses to stay, a genuine response to his love.
When I read the book, I see a tender love story between two utterly incompatible beings, like an allegory and a parallel of the Christmas story, how the Creator God reaches out to take our hand, initiating an unfathomable relationship. Love for the reason of pure love. An unlikely and inexplicable union.
The Christmas Story
I first felt a little uncomfortable about the obvious incongruous pairing of Ames and Lila, yet, their love relation comes to fruition, albeit looking tentative at first. The gap between Ames and Lila is just a crack in the pavement when compared to the abyss separating Creator God and His creation. I see Ames and Lila’s story as an allegory, if you will, a parallel, however meagre, illustrating the joining of two utterly disparate sides.
The essence of the Season is in the reaching out to bridge that huge chasm. As Ames and Lila’s newborn son at the end of the book is an evidence of their love, we too receives a child, born in a manger that day in Bethlehem, a sign of ultimate mending. Total reconciliation.
Other Reading the Season Posts: