MAKING CALVINIST THEOLOGY MEANINGFUL to modern Americans is a tough challenge, but insofar as it can be done, Robinson does it. In her Iowa trilogy (Gilead, Home, and Lila), she takes a classic, white, educated Calvinist vision of grace, a kind of loving and restrained Midwestern serenity, and opens it up. She shows how this deeply thought-out faith interacts with the disorienting extremes of slavery, racism, alcoholism, prison, poverty, illiteracy, and prostitution””extremes that are made manifest in the small town of Gilead through the experiences of damaged, outcast characters. Robinson’s great theological achievement is to show us the predictable limits yet surprising expansiveness of this fatalistic faith, which she demonstrates in plots that trace the ways white, male ministers and their families rise to the occasion of grace, or don’t, and in sentences that express a remarkable aesthetic vision that finds beauty and radiance in almost everything.
Gilead is narrated by the aging minister John Ames, and Home contains the same events told from the perspective of his best friend’s daughter Glory Boughton. In Lila, a prequel, Robinson returns to an outsider perspective reminiscent of her long-ago first book Housekeeping to show the encounter with grace from the perspective of a woman on the margins, Lila Dahl. Though Lila eventually marries the middle-class Ames, she grows up as a migrant farmworker, raised by a beloved foster mother whom she loses to jail. Armed with wariness and a knife, Lila makes her desolate way through the fields and brothels of Missouri and Iowa, finally arriving in the sanctuary of Gilead. For a while Lila lives in a ruined cabin in the woods outside of town, haunting the church and parsonage and graveyard, craving baptism for reasons she can’t understand, and teaching herself to write by copying Bible verses in a tablet. Eventually she and Ames begin an unlikely marriage that brings them unprecedented consolation, but also leaves Lila with unresolved desires to return to the wild world outside Gilead, to unbaptize herself and claim kinship with the lost people who live beyond the reach of religion.
In Lila’s story, Robinson extends the reach of grace farther than she ever has before”” stretching it across boundaries of literacy and class, and testing it with extremes of evil and loss, and yet it survives, lovely and glowing.
Read it all from Briallen Hopper.