Lila by Marilynne Robinson


Gilead, Marilynne Robinson's Pulitzer Prize winning novel, is the religious ruminations of an elderly preacher near death writing to his young son. Lila is the story of the mother of that son, a surprise love who came into the preacher John Ames' life so late. The setting is small town Iowa, sometime after the Depression. 

Lila was stolen away from her parents and sure death by a woman known only as Doll. They joined others in a small band in search of itinerant work and traveled with them for years until the bad times of the Depression ended their time together. Doll was dogged by the apparently sizeable clan of Lila's father, despite the fact that their lack of care of Lila would have resulted in her death. Doll's prize possession, and later Lila's, was a knife kept sharp enough to defend against that unnamed clan. Doll was forced to murder one or more of them and was arrested. By this point Lila was old enough to care for herself after a fashion, sometimes in miserable circumstances.

When she was back on the road by herself, she took refuge from a rain in John Ames' church and thus begins their connection. Although Doll's devotion to Lila was a part of her life, Lila is unable to trust another person. Over and over she prepares to flee and comforts herself with the thought that she can. Typical of her thinking is this passage:

She couldn't leave, now that she'd given her money to that boy. Well, she'd figure a way if she had to. She was thinking, I'm gone the minute he talks down to me, no matter what. And just that morning she'd been feeling so safe.

The book is the story of the increasing comfort and affection between the two and the slow unfolding of Lila's miserable life to that point. The consideration of religion plays a large role in their talk. Lila's questions and views make the preacher value her companionship; her questions are his and he takes time to consider when she asks a question.

The preacher is a kindly loving soul. Here's one of his commentaries on God:

God loves the world. God is gracious. I can't reconcile you know, hell and the rest of it to the things I do believe. And I feel I understand in a way. So I don't talk about it very much.

And later he says

But I do want to say one more thing. Thinking about hell doesn't help me live the way I should. I believe this is true for most people. And thinking that other people might go to hell just feels evil to me, like a very grave sin. So I don't want to encourage other people to think that way. 

I love that the book is dedicated to Iowa.

Marilynne Robinson, Lila, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014, 272 pages (I read the kindle version). Available in the UVa and public libraries, and from Amazon.

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