Friday, September 4, 2015

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

The marriage of Lila Dahl and John Ames did not seem to be a match made in heaven, if heaven there be. The Reverend Ames, a minister with deep roots in Gilead, a small town in Iowa, was an elderly man who lived in the same house and preached in the same Congregationalist church that his father and grandfather had. Lila was a younger woman, a homeless vagrant laborer without religion, education, family, or even her own last name. However, when she stepped into Reverend Ames’ church during a service, seeking shelter from a rainstorm, she immediately caught his interest. Over the summer, they cultivated a relationship that eventually led to marriage and the birth of a child.  Lila had long been an independent woman and she did not easily accept anything the minister offered her, including security and, most particularly, his religion.

During the 1920’s, in the rural Midwest, a woman named Doll had snatched a very young Lila away from neglectful and possibly dangerous caretakers. They joined a small group of migrant workers, walking from farm to farm, seeking out a precarious existence by providing extra hands for the planting, weeding and harvesting that needed to be done. This life sustained them until the dust storms destroyed the farms, impoverished the farmers and eliminated any work for itinerant labor. But no matter how difficult their circumstances got, Doll always put Lila’s needs first, even ensuring that she received a small amount of education.

So, when in the early post-War years, an adult Lila wandered into Gilead and into Reverend Ames’ life, she resisted his theology or any theology at all. Quite a disadvantage for a friend, let alone a wife, of a small town minister. But Lila had her own ideas and looked at Christian teaching with a cool, analytical eye. Doll and her friends were uneducated in all matters except hard work. They were too busy surviving in a hard world to consider matters of religion or patriotism. Yet, they provided for and protected Lila for no other reason than their own human decency. Lila was not willing to abandon them or believe them to be in Hell for eternity because they were not baptized and did not know their prayers. They were “people no one would miss, who had done no special harm, who just lived and died as well as they could manage.”

John Ames was a patient and thoughtful man who did not insist that his wife adopt his religious beliefs. Lila was a thoughtful and introspective woman who eventually came to her own accommodation with Christian teaching. Their natures made their marriage possible.

Lila by Marilynne Robinson is a prequel to her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Gilead although it can be read as a stand-alone book. (After reading this beautifully written book, some may be interested in reading [or rereading] Gilead. Definitely not action-packed, this is a book for readers interested in ideas and personalities.