I was absolutely jumping out of my skin at the opportunity to hear Marilynne Robinson speak at the Seattle Public Library (here’s the link, if you’d like to listen to her talk from October 2nd). Oddly enough, when I mention this Pulitzer Prize winning writer to my reading friends, few of them have encountered her work before. If you’re one of the uninitiated, let me be the first to bestow upon you the proud honor of getting to know one of our greatest living writers.
Robinson is a native northwester, born and raised in Idaho, but her most famous and recent novels are set in the Midwest, in Iowa. Her first novel, Housekeeping, which she published in 1980, won the Hemingway/Pen Foundation award for the best first novel and was nominated for a Pulitzer, which she later received for her second novel, Gilead. In her second novel, she begins her focus on the small town of Gilead and the life of a Congregationalist pastor named Reverend John Ames. Her third novel, Home, published this year, revisits the same town but focuses on a different pastor, Reverend Robert Boughton, Ames’ closest friend. Home is a finalist for this year’s National Book Award.
I admit, I have yet to read Housekeeping, but I did purchase a copy, and I even had Robinson sign it for me, to ensure its permanent place in my collection. But I can vouch for her other two novels, especially Home, which I just finished savoring. You see, you don’t simply plow through a Robinson novel. You savor it. You stew over it. You linger, just as if you were reading a book of poetry. These novels require a different pace. It goes against your entire being to read them quickly. And even though they are very short books, they’ll likely take you longer than most Victorian novels to read. You’ll read a sentence and want to stop to reread it again to digest it’s meaning, not because the language is difficult but because it means so much to you and resonates in so many parts of your life.
Robinson has called herself a “Christian writer.” She compares her writing to prayer because “it’s exploratory and you engage in it in the hope of having another perspective or seeing beyond what is initially obvious or apparent to you.” (Cited in Barnes and Noble Biography) (see what I mean about needing to digest her words for awhile? ).
But she doesn’t limit herself to a Christian readership. Sadly, you won’t likely find her works in a Christian bookstore. I think they deserve a place of honor there. Christians used to produce the best writing (hello, anybody ever hear of Milton?). In fact, Robinson has called Christians to be pursuing more intellectual, cultural work: “I’d like to see mainline churches, collectively and individually, remember and claim their profound histories and cultures. The mainline church, for example, founded a great many of the nonpublic universities in the country, and a lot of the public ones as well. This is an intellectual tradition” (Quoted in a Christian Century Interview).
In particular, her most recent novel, Home, is a story of a prodigal son. But, of course, it’s so much more than that. The title perfectly expresses the main thematic concern. What is home, and why do we seek it? Glory, the Reverend’s daughter, during her stay at her family home, explores the meaning the term in relation to her faith: “Weary or bitter or bewildered as we may be, God is faithful. He lets us wander so we will know what it means to come home” (102).
The book is rich with biblical references and theological conundrums. It asks a lot of you, but it also gives a lot as well.