Lila, the third book about small town life in Iowa by Marilynne Robinson, once again brings us to the town of Gilead. It is wonderful to return to this memorable fictional setting, even if this visit has a great deal of pain and darkness woven through the story.
All the books in the Gilead trilogy feature the same two families who are next door neighbors, the Ameses and the Boughtons. Because John Ames and Robert Boughton are pastors of local churches, readers get an intimate look at the demands, struggles, joys, and squabbles in congregations, as well as the theological discussions that make up daily life in pastors’ families.
Robinson tells the tale of the Ames and Boughton families by relating the same story in a single time period through the eyes of the main character in each of the three books. Lila, the third book, gives us a close look at the life of Lila, Rev. Ames’ wife. Lila is known to the readers of the first two books in the trilogy, but she is a mysterious character. Lila appeared suddenly at Rev. Ames’ church on a rainy Sunday morning, a stranger and an un-churched, un-educated, homeless person. She became beloved to readers because she won the heart of the much older Reverend, a long-time widower. They married shortly after they met, and had a son together. But who is Lila, really? Great question. A question that persists throughout the book –and not just for the reader, but for John Ames and Lila herself.
Our first glimpse of Lila is as a neglected, sickly toddler, who is either put outside to fend for herself, or put under the kitchen table by her family and ignored. Into this same house comes Doll, an itinerant worker woman, who arrives at the end of her work day to sleep at Lila’s house, presumably as a boarder. When they are together at the house, Doll is kind to Lila and concerned for her well-being. One day, when Lila is quite ill, Doll sweeps Lila up into her arms and takes her away from her family. Yes, this is kidnapping. Still, there is no doubt that the kidnapper demonstrates more love and attention to Lila than her kin show, and over time, Doll bestows on Lila many life skills, much affection, and a strong sense of belonging. The knowledge that Lila is a kidnapped child haunts Doll, and colors every decision about their conjoined lives from that point forward. Doll never explains who Lila’s birth family is, and avoids or re-directs any questions that Lila asks about them with a “It don’t matter” response. But of course, it does matter. It matters so much that Doll carries a knife with her at all times, which she will use to “cut someone” if they threaten her or Lila. And it matters to Lila, who constantly tries to understand her relationship to Doll, and to everyone else she encounters.
The knife is a recurring image throughout the book –one that is associated with protection, pain, trouble, loyalty, and life, as well as death. Lila’s identity, so uncertain and fragile, becomes intertwined with the knife. At one point Lila says, “That knife was the difference between her (Lila) and anyone else in the world.” Even after she and Rev. Ames get married, Lila sees the knife as her dowry and the inheritance she will pass on to her child.
Rev. Ames, although he knows almost nothing of Lila’s backstory, believes he knows who Lila is. He said, “There are people you seem to know the first time you see them. And other people you might spend your whole life with and never really know. That first day you walked into the church, that rainy Sunday, I felt as though I recognized you somehow. It was a remarkable experience. It was.”
As soon as they meet, Rev. Ames is entranced by Lila’s honesty and native intelligence. For her part, Lila is obviously attracted to the much older John Ames, but has trouble identifying her feelings. We join in her struggles to recognize and accept the range of the emotions she is experiencing.
John Ames is a devout and committed pastor in the Congregationalist Church in Gilead. Lila is totally ignorant of formal religion. Clearly illustrated in the book is the fact that church language is a major barrier to Rev. Ames’ attempts at sharing his life and faith in Christ with Lila. But love, even unlikely love, crosses the language barrier between Ames and Lila, reveals truth, meets pain with strength, and brings forth life. All of this is wonderfully conveyed by Robinson. A marvelous gift to take away from Lilais hope –hope for those who may feel themselves to be in a hopeless situation.
There is a lot to feast on as you read Lila: a gripping story, beautiful writing, some extremely funny scenes, as well as heart-rending moments. And there is plenty of theology to chew on too. But love, even unexpected and unadorned love from Rev. Ames, or fierce, sharp, and knife-like love from Doll, is what this book is about. It is in fact what all three books in the Gilead trilogy are about, I believe.
Lila contains some of the most beautiful writing you will ever read, telling about some of the most important subjects you will ever consider –faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.
Questions to Chew Upon:
- I have read several books and articles by Marilynne Robinson, including her book Absence of Mind, subtitled The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self. In this book, Robinson writes about the abandonment of the ideas of the soul from science, religion, and consciousness. Robinson is not afraid to challenge currently held patterns of thought in these areas, and writes about them brilliantly. That may be why I had a hard time trusting Lila’s voice in the book initially. I couldn’t reconcile my knowledge of Robinson’s intelligence with the simple, virtually uneducated, completely unsophisticated character of Lila. But it wasn’t long until she won me over, and I trusted Robinson’s representation of Lila. I wonder if anyone else experienced this when reading Lila. What are your thoughts?
- Although I think Lila is a book about the many forms of love, I also believe it is a book about being known. I have talked about this idea with friends over the years. There are those who maintain that to be known is more important than to be loved. What do you think?
- Lila’s major experience as a child with the church is very negative and traumatic. In the story, the group of migrant workers that Lila and Doll are connected with abandon her at a church in a small town because Doll has been gone for several days. Lila sit on the church steps fearfully waiting for Doll far into the evening. Although the pastor of the church is kind to Lila as she waits, the only thoughts she has are frantic ones about the minister placing her into an orphanage, since this is what she has heard all of her young life that churches do. How would you react if someone shared a similar story of their past with you? How would you as a pastor deal with this and other types of assumptions about the church?
- I laughed out loud at Lila’s night time car ride conversation with the woman who was driving home to be with her mother. Did any parts of Lila strike you as particularly comical? What is the power of humor in the book? In life?
What other questions would you ask? How would you organize a book group in your church, and what would you want to say about this book? Post your comments here!