Glory has returned to her childhood home, partly to care for her frail, aging father. Glory, the youngest of eight in the family, has no other choice but to return home to a father who now needs physical care. Her fiance, after years of hopeful anticipation for a home and family, has abandoned her and her hopes are now dashed.
Glory carries secrets she keeps hidden from her father, but is not afraid to expose to her prodigal brother Jack who suddenly returns home also. A recovering alcoholic fraught with guilt and remorse, Jack bears his own load of secretive choices.
“She said, “well, what is Papa going to do -“
“Do to me? Nothing. I mean, he’s going to forgive me.” He laughed. “And now I have a train to catch.”
“You won’t even stay for supper?”
He said, “Poor Pigtails,” and smiled at her and walked out the door.
And twenty years passed.”
Although Jack stayed away from home for twenty years and didn’t return even to attend their mother’s funeral, Glory seems to find it easy to show forgiveness and grace to him, and becomes his confidant and support system. Jack is tormented by his past and yet seems hopelessly caught in it.
Jack is not afraid to ask questions though, both of his preacher father (Robert Boughton), or his father’s good friend John Ames (who is also a pastor of the Congregationalist church). Jack’s obvious need for self-forgiveness and reassurance compels the reader’s empathy.
Glory now turns to helping Jack cope with the past, even though her brother is almost a stranger to her. She spends her days cooking, gardening, and cleaning (and when Jack shows up, cleaning up Jack’s messes also). In the process, her own personality (and needs) are almost swallowed up as she is caught between a strong religious parent and a needy, remorseful and self-questioning sibling. Glory has her own thoughts and opinions but rarely voices them to others, even to her own family.
“For her, church was an airy white room with tall windows looking out on God’s good world, with God’s good sunlight pouring in through those windows and falling across the pulpit where her father stood, straight and strong, parsing the broken heart of humankind and praising the loving heart of Christ. That was church.”
Her character is somewhat of a puzzle to me, because she never seems to become angry (and the one time she does, her anger quickly turns to tears). Can Glory be so repressed, so wounded by her fiance’s final rejection (and thievery) that she cannot allow her true feelings to surface?
“How to announce the return of comfort and well-being except by cooking something fragrant. That is what her mother always did. After every calamity of any significance she would fill the atmosphere of the house with the smell of cinnamon rolls or brownies, or with chicken and dumplings, and it would mean, This house has a soul that loves us all, not matter what. It would mean peace if they had fought and amnesty if they had been in trouble. It had meant, You can down down to dinner now, and no one will say a thing to bother you, unless you have forgotten to wash your hands. And her father would offer the grace, inevitable with minor variations, thanking the Lord for all the wonderful faces he saw around his table.
She wished it mattered more that the three of them loved one another. Or mattered less, since guilt and disappointment seemed to batten on love. Her father and brother were both laid low by grief, as if it were a sickness, and she had nothing better to offer them than chicken and dumplings.”
Jack has lots of questions but, every time he brings them up, they seem to result in grief or family disruption (will this family ever learn to communicate openly and honestly? Why does their pastor- father seem to be so genuine in his Christianity and yet not see how Christians have failed to show grace and love, especially to those of another color?)
I read this novel hoping for more, for some kind of resolution for Jack, some answers for him, and for a more hopeful life for Glory. Will she become more assertive and find contentment and happiness? Yet I also knew that the author’s purpose in writing this story was, most likely, not to fulfill the reader’s natural desires for the all-important happy ending (and in that I was not surprised! I truly was disappointed in the lack of resolution at the end of the book.)
Gilead, Iowa, a town created by the author, has characters that are flawed, opinionated, and sensitive, and the author’s writing itself is gentle and inviting. I really liked Teddy (Glory and Jack’s brother), and yet he only shows up briefly in this novel. His personality, his actions, his words, all struck an identifying chord with me and although a minor character, the ‘real-ness’ of him points to the cleverness of the author’s writing.
Marilynne Robinson creates in “Home” a fresh, searching and non-threatening approach to religion, to asking questions, to navigating the issues of predestination and God’s grace and love. However there are also bewildering paradoxes in the novel. For instance, Jack’s father seems so willing to extend this grace to his son (up to a point; until Jack pushes the limits!) And yet if his son is already doomed (according to rigid Calvinism) ‘to perdition’, then, why bother?
The novel’s popularity may be due to its gentleness, its lack of inhibition in asking questions, in exploring the conflicts between outward behavior and inward motivation, and pointing out human flaws (especially within the church world and within family relationships). At the same time, the reader cannot help but see that Jack is short-changed. His search for forgiveness is genuine and desperate, but in order to find complete healing, the absurdly fatalistic doctrine of predestination is only a harshly ambiguous stumbling block.
“Home” is not a fast-paced, plot-driven novel, but one to be savored slowly as the characters examine themselves, their beliefs, and find healing within the traditions of home, faith in a God who is real and forgiving, and community.
“Faith for her was habit and family loyalty, a reverence for the Bible was was also literary, admiration for her mother and father. And then that thrilling quiet of which she had never felt any need to speak. Her father had always said, God does not need our worship. We worship to enlarge our sense of the holy, so that we can feel and know the presence of the Lord, who is with us always. He said, Love is what it amounts to, a loftier love, and pleasure in a loving presence.”