June 5, 2020

IM Book Review: Home

By Chaplain Mike

And now here he is, Glory thought, haggard and probationary, with little of his youth left to him except the wry elusiveness, secretiveness, that he did in fact seem to wear on his skin. He stood propped against the counter with his arms folded and watched his father while his father pondered him, smiling that hard, wistful smile at what he knew his father saw, as if he were saying, “All those years I spared you knowing I wasn’t worth your grief.”

But the old man said, “Come here, son,’ and he took Jack’s hands and caressed them and touched them to his cheek. He said, ‘It’s a powerful thing, family.”

And Jack laughed. “Yes, sir. Yes it is. I do know that.”

“Well,” he said, “at least you’re home.”

The prodigal son has come home. Before his arrival, after twenty years in self-induced exile doing God knows what to bring disgrace on himself and the family, one of his more respectable siblings, demure younger sister Glory had traveled back to Gilead, Iowa and taken up residence in the old family house to care for her aged father.

That would be the Rev. Robert Boughton, retired Presbyterian minister, father of eight, widower, true believer and gentleman. It was he who loved Jack more than all his other children–Jack, the aforementioned prodigal, who had not even come home for his mother’s funeral. Yet such was the old man’s love that, were it not for his age and frailty, one might have witnessed him girding up his loins and racing down the quiet streets of Gilead to embrace his lost son with robe and ring and promise of fatted calf. Long had he waited. Long had he watched.

“At least you’re home,” he said, suggesting there was more to it than that. Indeed there was, as Rev. Boughton, Glory, and Jack himself would learn. In that scruffy old house, and on that unkempt property inhabited by ghosts of joy and regret (as much a character in this story as any of the individuals residing there) two worn and wounded middle-aged children and an elderly patriarch come to terms with their longings for home.

This is the profound, sad story Marilynne Robinson tells in Home: A Novel, a tale of three family members, their secrets, their conversations, meals, relationships, and their faith and questions.

Home follows Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Gilead, which describes the same time and events from the perspective of Rev. Robert’s Boughton’s best friend and ministerial colleague, the Rev. John Ames.

Together, for many decades, these two stalwarts had served the people of Gilead as ministers of the Presbyterian and Congregational churches, respectively. In private moments over the checkerboard, they had debated issues of religion and politics, and had counseled one another about how to deal with members of their flocks. Boughton’s son Jack was named “John” in honor of Ames. In fact, Jack was willing to call him, “Papa” when he could only speak to his own father as “Sir.” When Ames married later in life and had a child (having lost his first wife and baby in childbirth while in seminary), he named his son “Robert” in honor of his dear friend. Gilead and Home tell their intertwined stories and take the reader on a perceptive, poignant journey through the personal world of these characters.

Home is narrated by Glory, the Boughton child who “took things too much to heart.” Glory, who was teased by her siblings and called “Glory Hallelujah!” and “Glory Be!” It was Glory who had been there when Jack’s greatest transgression came to light, and Glory who drove her father out to the shack in the country to see Jack’s baby. This same Glory left home to become a teacher, where she met a man who broke her heart, though she had “dreamed of a real home for herself and the babies, and the fiancé, a home very different from this good and blessed and fustian and oppressive tabernacle of Boughton probity and kind intent.” This was Glory, who remained alone, and who was thus free to make her way home to Gilead to care for her father.

This is the daughter who had “kept most of the habits of her pious youth” —

Morning and evening she took her Bible out to the porch and read two or three chapters. …During the years she lived alone she had read the Bible morning and evening with the thought that father would be pleased if he knew, and also to remember who she was, to remember the household she came from, to induce in herself the unspecific memory of a comfort she had not really been conscious of until she left it behind.

It is Glory who handed her father the envelope from St. Louis — a letter from Jack. For the first time in twenty years, he was coming home.

After several false starts and delays, home he came, and it was Glory, Jack, and Rev. Boughton together again in the old family house. There they ate pancakes and drank coffee each morning and waltzed their way through conversations and silences throughout the day, becoming reacquainted with each other and discovering the secrets of twenty years apart. Jack took to tending the garden, sprucing up the property, and even coaxing the old DeSoto in the barn to run again. There were games of checkers and Monopoly, the installation of a television set for the primary purpose of watching baseball games, the playing of hymns on the piano. Theological and political discussions became sparring matches involving Jack, his father, and Rev. Ames. The prodigal even found a ball glove and played catch with little Robby.

And every day Jack posted letters and waited for the mail to arrive.

What does it mean to come home? To be a brother or sister to someone you know but don’t know? To reconcile one’s experiences of childhood, family, and place with life in the wider, wilder world outside? To learn the nuanced differences between “secret” and “sacred,” two words Glory always confused? To honor a parent one has disappointed deeply? To love a prodigal who is home in the flesh but remains inscrutable? To sit, “whiling away perdition together, telling tales of what got [us] there, to forestall tedium and the dread of what might come next.” To face the fear that one’s path toward that perdition may be predestined? To hope against hope that one might fix up the old homestead and find future comfort there for another generation of family? To take solace in meaning well?

The old man closed his eyes. “I can’t enjoy the thought of heaven like I should, leaving so much unattended to here. I know it’s wrong to think your mother’s going to ask me about it.” He was silent for awhile, and then he said, “I was hoping I would be able to tell her that Jack had come home.”

Jack sat pondering his father, and there was something in his face more absolute than gentleness or compassion, something purged of all the words that might describe it. Finally he said, whispered, “I hope you will give her my love.”

The old man nodded. “Yes. I will certainly do that.”

This is a novel for all who long to find their way home, to discover the hope that lies waiting to be found in love and disappointment, and in family, which may very well be the same thing.

• • •

Note: We reviewed Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead in February.

Comments

  1. You had me at the prodigal son has come home. I resemble that remark, I’m intrigued. Thank you CM!

  2. Awesome. I’m currently on my second read through of Gilead + Home. Something about those books makes my heart ache for that lifestyle – being part of a community for generations, truly knowing people, sharing joy and grief, meditating on a big porch outside. Makes me want to pastor a small church in a small community.

    And I can’t tell you how often I think of the i-monastery when I read these books. I think they catch the spirit of life’s journey, like most of the contributors here (writers and commenters alike).

    Give me John Ames, Robert Capon, and all of the imonks any day of the week.

  3. I’ve read Robinson’s other two novels, Housekeeping and Gilead, and loved them both — but for some reason I’ve never gotten around to Home. Maybe because it’s a smidgen too close, reminding me of my own estranged (by his choice) brother. We’ve only spoken once in the last five years, and that was after he got my letter telling him that Mom had died. (Like Jack, he didn’t come to the funeral — despite living only 30 miles away.)

    Maybe I NEED to read this one …

  4. I will probably never read those two books. I may be contrarian on this, but they sound profoundly depressing to me. My own blood family has been fractured for years and whenever we found ourselves in the same room together there was little to say. Blood means nothing, it is the REAL relationships that we forge in life that count for something.

    But that’s my OWN pathology. I’m sure the author is very talented and that her books give many people pleasure, but they hold no attraction for me.

  5. Thank you for recommending the books, they sound lovely. I’ve added them to my to-read list. That list keeps getting longer but I will get to them all eventually!

  6. “Home” was the first of her books that I read. Actually, I listened to it- CD’s from the library. Intriguing, deep, rich. Have since purchased and read and re-read “Gilead”. Beautiful writing. Unforgettable characters. Highly recommend them both.

  7. David Cornwell says

    “Home” is now added to my reading list. Recently I’ve been reading some Robert Capon’s writings on grace and the Kingdom. His approach is so refreshing. “Home” seems like a perfect follow-on.