‘Housekeeping’ (1980), ‘Gilead (2004), ‘Home’ (2008)
Marilynne Robinson’s humble, sad and mighty trilogy takes a long look at fatherhood. Yet it begins with ‘Housekeeping’ and two fatherless sisters in a Middle-America experienced as the loneliest place on earth. Isolation there is so endemic that people take it for the normal human condition. ‘Gilead’, with its biblical title, examines small-town religion’s effort to populate the emptiness with a bare-bones worldview built on quotes like punch lines from the Bible. ‘Home’ confronts fatherhood with Robinson’s view that permeates all three novels, that even in the tiniest and most intimate grouping people are so unique and different as to make judging them absurd. As the reprobate Jack will say in ‘Home’, “There are separate universes, you know. I happen to have mine to myself.”
‘Housekeeping’ is all about home and away, about family and the attempt to escape it and empty, fly-over America by a life of tramping. The sisters, Lucille and Ruth, who tells the story, are born to trauma. Grandfather is a faint memory and, when their mother kills herself, they live with their grandmother till she too fades out and is replaced by two maiden great aunts. Finally, their own wayward aunt, Sylvia, steps in to look after the girls in their end-of-the-world family home. Sylvia’s way out of the family has been to ride freight trains in a homeless life of the open road. The dreamy, quaintly demented aunt doesn’t fit into local life. Living with her severs the girls all the more from the town’s ways, which are already grown over by the weedy wilderness of mid-continent.
Lucille deserts her eccentric aunt’s household to embrace conventional life as her only chance for survival. Ruth dissolves into Sylvia’s personality. Aunt and niece revert to a transient existence, ever on the move. Facetious definitions from those years come to mind. A bum doesn’t care to work or travel. A hobo travels looking for work. A tramp travels but avoids work whenever possible. Ruth and her aunt are tramps, rail-riding, occasional waitresses and harvest help, eternal temporaries.
However, any summarising of ‘Housekeeping’ is an inexcusable reduction. Robinson’s evocation of an Idaho hamlet made insignificant by the mysteries of nature around it—barrier mountains, bottomless lake, sinister forest—is breathtaking in its eloquent sensuality. The sisters’ childhood travail somehow speaks to the situation of us all.
Gilead is a small Iowa town hungover by an earlier religious binge. Its Abolitionists fought the pro-slavers in Kansas during the Civil War. Ames, a scrupulous Presbyterian minister, Congregationalist version, is Robinson’s spokesman here. The novel is Ames’ letter to his seven-year-old son whom as an elderly father he will not see grownup. Ames’ struggle always to do the right thing in line with Scripture lets us grasp Robinson’s overall strategy. She wants to show how various Protestant denominations tried to tame the vacancy of Middle-America—to humanise it—by occupying its people with problems of conscience, making them all as scrupulous, self-tormenting, and Scripture-conscious as the the Reverend Ames.
Robinson elevates this mindset above mere Bible-thumping by the delicacy of her language, nuance of emotion, and mastery of construction. All the same, as we look over the US today with evangelicalism of a flat-earther variety rampant, it’s hard to see the process she sketched as having left an indelible mark.
‘Home’ extends ‘Gilead’ but can stand alone as a novel. Its standpoint is Glory’s who tells the story. Her engagement a disappointment, she has returned to the family home to look after her enfeebled father, dying Reverend Boughton, another Presbyterian cleric. With its numerous family departed, the house is a silent prison for her. Then—prodigal son’s return alert— the black sheep Jack, whom we have met in ‘Gilead’, appears after a twenty-year absence. Amongst the eight siblings, he was big brother to Glory, youngest of the litter. The adult brother and sister, while looking after their father, begin a long process of getting to know and trust each other. The trilogy comes closest to a traditional novel here as their talk with a slow addition of touches builds a finished picture.
Of all her characters, Jack is the only one Robinson shrouds in mystery. We know that as a young man he was driven into constant mischief and irresponsibility in what seemed like a demoniac reaction to the heavily moralising life at home. He returns in his forties as a recovering alcoholic, repentant if not reformable. While away he has fathered a child with a Black woman whose father—another Minister!—deems Jack unworthy of his daughter.
Jack’s painful separation from his lover and his adored mixed-race son plunges the trilogy suddenly into contemporary America. ‘Housekeeping’ approached history only with its atmosphere of the great Depression. ‘Gilead' mentions the Eisenhower presidency and Senator Joseph McCarthy’s antics but as faraway events of small consequence to the ‘Heartland’. In ‘Home’, however, Jack has a personal stake in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. The anguish with which he watches it evolve on TV marks a contrast with his father, the Reverend Boughton, and family friend, Reverend Ames. The clerics, preoccupied with theological abstractions and biblical catchwords, see Black Americans in the traditional way of white supremacists. Blacks—then, of course, Negroes—are difficult children to be disciplined till they grow up into imitation whites, preferably Presbyterian.
The trilogy that began faraway and long ago ends in an America foreshadowing 2021. The trial of Derek Chauvin, the white policeman who murdered Black George Floyd is taking place in Minneapolis and ‘Nomadland’, a bittersweet movie about life as perpetual-movement in a trailer is up for the Academy Award in Hollywood.
No better graphic emblem for the three books—‘Housekeeping,’ homey small-town ‘Gilead’ and ‘Home’—than a beaten-up mobile home escaping down a US Interstate into the horizon. It’s fleeing the family that made it and that it can’t do without. It’s exchanging one loneliness for another one capped with the illusion of freedom, a bigger cage. As the lonely Reverend Boughton said of his brood in his dotage: “All of them call it home, but they never stay.”