I've just finished reading Marilynne Robinson's recent novel simply called Home.(London: Virago Press, 2008)
It's a superbly written exploration of the idea of being at home, both in its ordinary, human sense and the deeper spiritual sense indicated by Augustine in his famous statement, 'You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.'
There is much in this novel about finding our home with God, but not apart from our home with each other.
The novel is set in the home of the Rev Robert Boughton, retired Presbyterian minister in the town of Gilead, in the state of Iowa. Boughton and his family were minor characters in Robinson’s previous novel Gilead, which centred upon Boughton’s colleague and friend Rev John Ames. Boughton had named one of his sons John, after Ames and the relationship between the two Johns is a element in the plot of both novels. In this novel, John Boughton is known as Jack.
Home is set somewhere in the late 1950s or around 1960, very early in the development of the Civil Rights movement.
The novel includes an exploration of what it means to be at home. Most of the novel takes place within and around the household. Like Gilead, the ‘plot’ involves very little action, but much intense and personal interaction, dialogue and reflection.
Boughton is now old and so frail he rarely leaves the house. His youngest daughter Glory has recently come to live with him and care for him. She has left a long term and disappointing relationship and her career as a teacher and now spends all her time caring for her father. Then Jack, the prodigal son returns after twenty years of no contact with his family. Despite their efforts to trace him, especially at the time of his mother’s death, Jack had not come home until now. He is destitute and is unsure whether he will be welcome.
Here, from page 17, is Robinson's insightful description of the home life, and the kind of religion which characterized this home. It is moral, upright, and yet urbane.
‘Her parents were, in their way, fully as innocent as she was, having put aside their innocence on practical grounds, not in the belief that it has been discredited, but because they accepted the terms of life in this world as a treaty to be preferred to conflict, though by no means ideal in itself. Experience had taught them that truth had sharp edges and hard corners, and could be seriously at odds with kindness. They had learned that excessive devotion to even the highest things seemed and probably was sanctimonious, and that the one sufficient measure of excess was that look of annoyance, confirmed in themselves by a twinge of embarrassment, that meant the line had been crossed. They recognized grace in the readiness of the darkest sinner to take a little joke, a few self-effacing words, as an apology. This was something her father in particular, who was morally strenuous but sociable, too, had learned to appreciate cordially. Truly there were perils on every side in the pastoral life, and her father was wary of them all. With the dreadful rigor of an upright child Glory had noted and pondered his accommodations, however minor or defensible. This was in part an effect of her finding herself in a suddenly quiet house with only her parents to think about.’
Yet the reality of this home life is that it served as a launching place for the careers of the Boughton children. They all left Gilead, and only returned once or twice a year. One gets the impression that this is a kind of obligation. Close to the end of the novel, Glory recognizes that she is now to be the custodian of this home, while her sisters and brothers have another life.
The 'action' of the novel is largely around the return of Jack and his struggle to find peace with himself, with his father and his home.
I will write more of this in another post, but now I want to focus on the implications of this struggle.
Late in the novel, Jack has made it clear he will leave, and the father announces that he will leave the house to Glory.
So, at page 308 we read:
'So Glory would live out her life in a place all the rest of them called home, a place they would mean to return to more often than they did. If she spoke discreetly to the high school principal about the fact that the marriage she intended had not in fact taken place, the information would pass through town and be absorbed and cease to be of particular interest. She could start teaching again.’
Later, pp308-9, when Jack had been to visit Ames, then spoke with his father, this inter-change between Jack and Glory:
‘It wasn’t bad,’ he said softly. ‘He was very kind. He couldn’t do anything for me, but he was kind. It was all right. Better than I expected, really. …
She said, ‘I’m glad it was a good conversation.’
He nodded, ‘I called him Papa, and this time I think it may even have pleased him a little.’ He smiled to himself, and then he said, ‘I told him almost everything, and when I was done he said, “You are a good man.” Imagine that.’
‘Well, I could have told you you are a good man. I’ve said it in so many words, surely.’
He laughed. ‘You’re a miserable judge of character. Mine, especially. No objectivity at all.’
Finally, Jack is told that he is a good man. All his life he has been 'the black sheep'. But in reality there is something more to this: it is not only Jack who runs away from home. The others, too, have all gone elsewhere to find a life. Who can live with this piety, this expectation?
In this home, grace is asserted, but is it experienced, practiced?
Jack is the profligate, who cannot be generous to himself. He spends so much of his time, in childhood and adulthood, hiding, yet so close to the house, up a tree, in the shed loft: hoping to be near, yet not belonging.
So where is home, and who is at home?
Those who are sure they belong do not need to come home, and the two who have not fulfilled the parents' dreams for them, actually do come home, and are such kind, generous, reflective and gentle people.
There is much wisdom in this insight. These restless souls and, yet, found some sense of home.