Reading The Season: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

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.

GileadGilead (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.

 

HomeHome (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

 

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.

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Lila Dahl

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.

John Ames

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.

Sunset

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.

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Other Reading the Season Posts:

2015: The Book of Ruth

2013 Poetry by Madeleine L’Engle

2012: Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis

2011: Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle 

2010: A Widening Light, Poetry by Luci Shaw

2009: The Irrational Season, Madeleine L’Engle 

2008: The Bible and the New York Times, Fleming Rutledge 

2008: A Grief Observed, C. S. Lewis

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Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

I just finished reading Marilynne Robinson’s first novel Housekeeping, and I’m stunned.  The title is simple enough, but the subject matter is expansive, haunting, and unresolvable. Yes, from the title, you could assume it’s about family, and true, we have the story about two sisters Ruth and Lucille abandoned by their mother Helen. After leaving her two young daughters with their belongings at her mother’s home in the remote town of Fingerbone, Idaho, Helen goes out and drives her car off the cliff.

The book won the Hemingway Foundation/Pen Award for Best First Novel in 1980, and nominated for a Pulitzer that same year.

It’s about sisterhood, how Ruth and Lucille grow up first under the care of their aloof grandmother, then after her death, their two grand aunts, who can’t wait for a younger person to raise these children. So, finally, their mother’s younger sister Sylvie, the estranged daughter of their grandmother, the aunt they have never known, comes back home to Fingerbone to take care of them.

Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson

So yes, we can expect some dysfunctional upbringing. But that’s not it. Robinson’s narratives are lyrical, internal, thought-provoking and poignant. Rather than making a social comment on a dysfunctional family, it searches deep into the human condition.

It’s about loneliness, that haunting, inconsolable feeling that can drive one off the cliff of sanity. It’s about survival, how being constrained by such loneliness, one can still go on, striving to find some meaning in blood and kin, facing others during the day and oneself in the deep darkness of the night.

It’s also about personhood, how you might think after such a childhood experience, the two sisters would have clung to each other in an inseparable bond, and yet, one can still escape to another life by squeezing out of the relational cocoon.

And it points to the larger scheme of things, that all are transient, however static we may feel about our situations. No matter how well a housekeeping job we do to keep up an orderly life or fulfill expectations, we cannot ignore our inner chamber. We’re all a diaspora of transient humanity longing for home.

So the transients wandered through Fingerbone like ghosts, terrifying as ghosts are because they were not very different from us… Sylvie was an unredeemed transient, and she was making a transient of me.

I read Gilead years ago. I don’t know why I’ve waited until now to savour Robinson’s other fictional works. Housekeeping is hauntingly true and intellectually satisfying. I know this is a book I need to reread many times in order to grasp all that the author is saying… if I can ever do that, gleaning all that Robinson had meant to say. So many thoughts in just 219 pages.

Many images from other books and movies conjured up in my mind as I was reading: the movies Thelma and LouiseStand By Me, and Jeannette Walls’s memoir The Glass Castle. And Chapter 10, where Robinson puts the story in the context of Biblical allusions, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life came to mind. But of course, those are merely images, or interactive memories. What draws my attention page after page is  the voice of Robinson’s narrator Ruth, and her heart-wrenching and yet unsentimental storytelling.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, published by Faber and Faber, London. Third Edition, 2005. 219 pages.

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Related Post:

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

Dances With Words (where there’s a short write-up on Gilead)

The Glass Castle Book Review

The Tree Of Life Movie Review

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Dances with Words

After listening to an audiobook, do you consider having read the book?

Why or why not?

I’ve been mulling over this question for some time now. I love reading, but I’m a slow reader. It’s always faster to listen to a book read to me than reading it myself. So you see the appeal there. And I can make good use of my time while driving.

But I always feel there’s a difference between listening and reading. All along, I don’t equate having listened to an audiobook with having read the printed pages. I’m beginning to find the word ‘finish’ most apt, since it can apply to both. Saying ‘I have finished a book’ can mean either.

Oral tradition of storytelling has long been around in human history, a way to preserve tales and legends that had not found a written form. But for those that do have a life in words, or, ‘texts’ in our eAge, why do I still hesitate to consider listening to them the same as reading the print version?

At long last, I think I’m beginning to get a hold of what could be the difference… and this may sound so common sense to you. But, it’s an Eureka moment for me.

Here it is: Reading a book is a first-hand encounter. I’m the sole interpreter of the text. Like partners in a dance, as a reader I respond and move with every single word in my own way.

The Dance of Life by Edvard Munch (1900)

With audiobooks, I’m listening to a voice that has already interpreted the written codes. Every audio recording is a performance. And I mean it in a good sense. The reading I’m listening to has passed through an interpretive filter. That voice must have first read the words, internalized, and then delivered them with what the voice thought was the appropriate diction, pitch, accent, tempo, emotion…

When I’m reading a book, I’m dancing with the words as partners. When I’m listening to an audiobook, I’m watching a dance performance. I enjoy both. But the experiences are different… and there’s only one first-hand encounter that’s unique to me: my own.  But sometimes, I need to see how others dance too in order to appreciate the story or the characters more. We just may need dancing lessons every now and then.

I must give kudos to two audiobooks I finished recently. In both of them, the voice reading the text confirms how fascinating dances with words can be.

On Beauty by Zadie Smith, read by Peter Francis James:

I’m amazed how one reader can give life to characters of various cultural background in such a vivid manner. On Beauty explores in a nuanced and comical way, relationships and conflicts within a family, as well as between races, generations, and genders. It was shortlisted for a Booker (2005) and was the Orange Prize winner in 2006. Now imagine the myriad of characters.

The book describes two families intertwined in a cacophony of cultural dissonance, the fathers being academic rivals. In the Belsey family we have father Howard who is a white Englishman, his African American wife Kiki, their three youthful offspring who have grown up in America influenced by different subcultural vernaculars. Melting pot is a wrong term to describe them. It’s more like you’ve thrown classical, jazz, hip-hop, rap, all into the wok and stir fry.

Howard’s academic rival is Monty Kipps, who has brought his family from England to stay in America shortly as a visiting scholar teaching at the same college as Howard. The Kipps family members are all British citizens with Trinidadian heritage. Their two college age children have grown up in England.

The talented actor Peter Francis James has given a worthy portrayal of such a cultural mix of characters without turning them into caricatures, but has rendered them convincing and real. Zadie Smith’s nuanced dialogues and humor are well executed. It is a close encounter of dissonance in language, accents, values, and racial influences. What a dance performance this is. I have not read the book, but when I do read it, I’m sure I will not appreciate it as much if I haven’t heard the voices jumping up and down in my mind.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, read by Tim Jerome

Gilead was the 2005 Pulitzer Prize fiction winner. I read the book a few years back. Listening to the audio CD’s recently has not only brought back memory of my previous enjoyment, but insights that I’d missed my first time reading the book. All thanks to the calm, soothing, and gentle voice of Tim Jerome, portraying spot-on the ageing John Ames, Congregationalist minister of Gilead, Iowa.

Throughout the book, there’s only one character speaking, that of John Ames leaving a legacy to his very young son, telling him stories of his own grandfather and father, a family tradition of ministers. Jerome’s audio rendition of the book works in me like a devotional. His voice embodies grace and forgiveness. Listening to him can only augment my own reading experience, a performance to emulate for the dance of life.

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What are some of your experiences of reading vs. listening to books? Which are your favorite audiobooks?

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