I found this book at the library on the ‘new’ shelf and brought it home!
Lila’s childhood was a nightmare of just struggling to survive. Doll, the woman who ‘saves her’ and carries her away to keep her alive, becomes her only source of food, emotional connection, and ‘family’. Lila never learns her real name or discovers who her true family is.
Doll and Lila drift along from town to town with a group of migrant workers during the Dust Bowl years. Lila does not know what it is to have a real home of her own. She does not have the security of knowing where her next meal will come from and will never take delight in the inter-relationships between normal childhood friends or learn the conventions and manners of a normal social life.
Lila’s caregiver Doll is charged with murder and Lila subsequently ‘loses’ her. Part of Lila’s musings throughout the book are her memories that are so immersed with the care Doll gave her, and wondering where Doll ended up and whether Lila could have possibly made a difference to Doll’s outcome.
Now on her own, eventually Lila makes her way to the small town of Gilead. She goes from door to door asking the women if they need ‘help’, so that she can earn enough to keep herself. Finding an abandoned shack to stay in, she is drawn to the local church and meets the Reverend John Ames. And now, finally, Lila’s life begins to change as for the first time, she experiences more than just a passing interest from another human being. She finds simple human kindness, someone willing to answer her questions, and who actually seems to care long enough about her to wait for her answers.
Anyone who has read “Gilead” knows that Lila will eventually marry the Reverend and become a mother. This book is about her journey from her early life to the time when she is a young married wife, expecting a child.
Lila doesn’t know how to act in public, she doesn’t know the name of the state she lives in, or even the names of the months of the year. Up until she came to the town of Gilead, Lila’s whole world revolved around the seasons of the year, the weather, when she could work at picking apples, hoeing corn or sitting around a campfire at night. The Reverend is probably the very first person (except Doll, who eventually abandons her), who shows Lila kindness.
“Lila” is written as a narrative that switches time periods rather abruptly, so I had to first get used to that. Lila, the main character in the book, and her narrative voice is one that I have never come across before!
She has many adjustments to make even in the simple things of life that most people take for granted. Christmas, for instance:
“Sometimes in St. Louis a few of the gentlemen would stand outside singing, things that didn’t sound much like Christmas. Mrs. closed the house for the holiday, out of respect, she said, but also because she thought she might get shut down for good if she didn’t. She kept the shades drawn and the lights off so no one would come to the door. She made the girls live on cold beans and cheese sandwiches so no cooking smells could drift into the street. She took the radio into her own room and turned it so they could barely hear it… So Christmas for the girls was just pinochle in the twilight of the drawn shades and then, when the sun went down, fighting and weeping and telling old stores everybody had heard and nobody believed except the ones who were just plain simple.”
This is contrasted with her life *now* in Gilead, as the preacher’s wife, and we can see the adjustment that Lila is making internally just from her thoughts:
“Doane never said a word about Christmas, and Doll didn’t either. They were always just somewhere trying to get through the winter. It was better for Lila while she worked at the hotel, but she never really liked it. Now here she was with an old man dreaming about his baby and humming “Silent Night”…. Someone knocked at the door with a plate of cookies, and when he brought it in, he said, “Gingerbread!” as if that was supposed to mean something to her.”
But Lila has a curious mind and she is not afraid to ask questions.
“She asks the Reverend, “What happens to you if you’re lost?”
He said, “Lila, you always do ask the hardest questions.”
One of the questions Lila has is about religion, where she fits in it, and how to interpret her life amongst her new surroundings. Lila is exposed to Calvinism and the doctrine of predestination through one of the preacher’s friends and begins to puzzle over what it is to be one of the ‘elect.’
“But Boughton mentioned a Last Judgment. Souls just out of their graves having to answer for lives most of them never understood in the first place. Such hard lives. And there Doll would be, whatever guilt or shame she had hidden from all her life laid out for her, not bit of it forgotten. Or forgiven. But that wasn’t possible. The old man always said that God is kind.”
Lila has had very little stability in her life, and very few tangible possessions of her own. But she does have a Bible, and she uses it to copy out verses to improve her handwriting. The books of the Bible that she reads cause her to ask questions and make parallels within her own world. But even with the little Lila has, she does have her self-respect and pride:
“Lila thought, This is the very worst part of being broke. Everybody can see how broke you are….
Mrs. Graham was watching her face, a little pleased with herself, and regretful, and embarrassed. She said, “You needn’t take them if you don’t have any use for them, dear. I just thought they might be your size.”
Lila said, “They look about right. I could probably use them. Sure.” She should have said thank you, she knew it, but she never asked anybody for anything except work, and if they gave her something else they did it for their own reasons. She wasn’t beholden to them, because being beholden was the one thing she could not stand. She wouldn’t even look at the clothes, though she knew Mrs. Graham hoped she would. So they must be all right, she thought.”
What will happen to Lila? even after she has the security of a home with John Ames, love and acceptance, and kindness, she still struggles, wondering whether to stay there, or to leave. She often questions herself and wonders if she made the right choice. For anyone who has grown up as she has, with very little stability in her life and the absence of any reasonably decent role model, her wavering is understandable.
The novel builds slowly, and the reader is carried along in Lila’s life, watching her grow up, move from place to place, survive, and end up in the small town of Gilead. We wonder along with Lila whether she should stay there (and remain in her marriage and experience child-rearing), or go back to the only life she has ever known, the life of a wanderer.
Lila also struggles to understand her position as a preacher’s wife and his unconditional love for her. She has difficulty herself accepting her less-than-pristine past, and cannot understand why her past does not seem to affect her husband’s love and acceptance of her.
I enjoyed reading this book, and kept wanting to find out what was going to happen to Lila, and if she will ever reconcile herself to the loss of Doll and discover who her real family was. The writing itself at times flowed so naturally, but other times I found myself re-reading a sentence just to try to figure out the point of view or what was really being said.
“Lila” raises questions that everyone has; questions about who we are, what to do with the circumstances that life gives to us, how to respond to life’s challenges, and where we are headed.
“Lila” is deceptively simple, as it is written from the point of view of an uneducated migrant worker, but asks tough theological questions that many today still are looking for answers. Perhaps it is that common point of reference that we all have, that gives it such wide appeal.