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Marilynne Robinson: Lila

If you have read the first two books in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy, you will know who Lila Ames is. (And, if you have not read the first two, you should do so before reading this book.) Lila, as we have seen from both the perspective of John Ames, her (much older) husband, and from the perspective of the Boughton family, seems a relatively quiet, low-key woman, who suddenly turned up in Gilead, we do not know from where or why, and helped out in the church and in the Reverend Ames’ garden. Ames took a fancy to her and, eventually, at her suggestion, he proposed to her and they married and, at the beginning of the first book in the trilogy, had an almost seven year old son, though we only learned the boy’s name, Robby, in the second book. This book, as the title tells us, is her story and probably not quite what we were expecting.

We find her, at the beginning of the book, as a very young child. She is crying and is then thrown out of the house. Even when it gets dark, she is left there. Then a woman called Doll arrives. It seems that Doll slept at the house most nights though who or what she is, is not clear. What is clear is that she is not the child’s mother. The child is, of course, Lila and Doll is to look after her. Doll takes her off to a cabin where an old woman reluctantly takes the pair in. They stay till the old woman’s son returns and they have to leave. They join up with a group of migrants, led by a man called Doane. We follow the adventures of Doane, his group and Doll and Lila. Life is not easy but Doane manages to find work and sustenance for his group. Doll and Lila never speak again about where she came from, who the family was that she was taken from and who she was. We get the detailed story of this group, as they travel from town to town, get work, get into trouble and, at times, struggle. Lila is more or less friends with another child, Mellie, but Mellie is more boisterous, while Lila generally keeps herself to herself or stays with Doll. It is not always easy and, at times, they have to flee and there are, inevitably, internal dissensions. Doll even arranges to take a year off the travelling to live in the same place, so that Lila can enough schooling to learn to read and write. She does not fit in at the school but does learn to read and write. Eventually, during the Depression, when Doane can no longer get enough work and food, the group breaks up and Doll and Lila go off together.

While Robinson is telling this story of Lila’s early life, we are also seeing how she came to be Mrs Ames. We know a few of the details from the two earlier books, particularly Gilead, the Reverend Ames’ story which includes how he met and married Lila. However, this tells how and why she arrived in Gilead and what she did there before marrying the Reverend Ames. She had worked as a prostitute in St Louis for a time. This had happened when Doll had been arrested for knifing a man and was likely to be in prison for some time. A woman Lila met recommended the brothel, run by a woman known only as Mrs. She was harsh and tough with her girls and eventually Lila ran away, getting a lift from a woman who was travelling to see her sick mother. She was aiming for Iowa but not Gilead but somehow lands in Gilead. She finds a shack there, where she stays and survives doing odd jobs. She works doing odd jobs and helps the Reverend who, as we know from Gilead, will eventually marry her. Their times together are not always easy. Lila has itchy feet and not only does she continually think of leaving and continuing her travels, looking for Doll, to find out whether she is still alive, John Ames is well aware that she is having these thoughts, even after she is married and, indeed even after she is pregnant.

As the trilogy is about religion, we learn of her struggles with religion. With Doane and Doll, she knew nothing of religion, though did have a mild curiosity. Indeed, she has used the Bible (a copy of which she steals from Ames’ church) to help with her reading and writing and struggles throughout the book, with the Book of Ezekiel, determined to find out for herself what it means and what it is about. Ames wants her to get baptised and she resists for a long time, not least because she does not see the point. She is uncomfortable, like Jack Boughton in Home, with going to church, primarily for the same reason, because people will stare at her. Ames does not push her into anything, either baptism or church attendance or, indeed, any other religious activity and generally shows himself, as we have learned from the two previous books, to be pragmatic, flexible and easy-going.

Lila is glad to have a son but has had doubts in the past. But during her pregnancy and, indeed, after he is born, she does think of leaving. Two or three times she had even had the thought of stealing him, carrying him away to the woods or off down the road so she could have him to herself and let him know about that other life. But she imagined the old man, the Reverend, calling after them, “Where are you going with that child?” The sadness in his voice would be terrible. Indeed, she does have a heart. Once she is settled with the Reverend, she finds her old shack has been occupied by a boy travelling like she was. He has even found her secret stash of money (forty-five dollars) and stolen it. He tells her but she lets him keep it. Money is only important for what she can immediately buy with it and there is not much that she does want to buy.

Home was about belonging, about whether Jack could feel that he belonged to the Boughton family or, indeed, whether he belonged anywhere. To some degree, this is the theme of this book. Lila has never belonged. She does not really know what it means or, indeed, if she wants it. She sees disadvantages in it. We know, from the earlier books, what her decision will be but, in this book she struggles with it, both her need for it and whether to do it. She had always felt that she did not belong to Doane’s group, that she was there on sufferance and only because Doll protected her. Indeed, at one time, when Doll goes off for a few days, they abandon her and Doll has to come and rescue her. In the end, she does stay, as we know, but, in this book, Robinson superbly shows her dilemma and we get the feeling that it is a dilemma that might not have been fully resolved.

Publishing history

First published 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux