By Marilynne Robinson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020. Pp. 320. $27.00
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Review by Christine Havens
Jack. A name familiar to readers of Robinson’s three previous books set in Gilead, Iowa: Gilead, Home, and Lila. Jack, or John Ames Boughton, is the self-proclaimed ne’er-do-well son of a Presbyterian minister, Robert Boughton. In the first three books, readers come to know Jack through the eyes of other storytellers: his father’s best friend, Reverend John Ames, for whom Jack is named; his sister, Glory; and John Ames’ young wife, Lila. In the first three novels, which essentially relate the same family histories from differing perspectives, Jack has returned to this small rural town after a 20-year absence from a family who saw him as the prodigal son even before he exiled himself.
In Jack, readers live solely in the depths of this “self-orphaned” man’s head and heart during the latter part of his life in St. Louis. This is where he dwells in what he describes as the “outer darkness” of the gospel parables. This is when he falls in love with Della, a young Black schoolteacher he meets shortly after being released from two years in prison. There are, of course, many obstacles to this relationship, including Della’s disapproving family, who want her to remain employed at Sumner, a historic all-Black high school, and Jack’s desire to remain “harmless” to all around him, especially her.
Robinson has truly outdone herself in unlocking Jack Boughton, releasing his life to those who have read the first three books and have waited to know more. Equally, readers for whom Jack is an entry into the Gilead sequence will find it just as satisfying to be able to understand this character before seeing him through the unkindly biased lenses of his family. The book also stands as a theologically charged love story and commentary on racism and segregation in the 1950s and now, regardless of whether one has read the other books. The conversations and emotions between Jack and Della and between Jack and himself make my heart ache in recognition, joy, and sorrow.
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Literature and poetry, in addition to Calvinist theology and metaphysics, spread like tree roots throughout the book, weaving texture into the inner lives of Jack and Della, connecting them profoundly. The third scene in the book, to which nearly a quarter of the novel is devoted, takes place in the whites-only cemetery, and is especially laced with literary and theological discussions about Hamlet and Paradise Lost, among others. Robinson explores the difference between love and loneliness in depth here, allowing that theme to grow into the rest of the story as the relationship between these two people burgeons despite all attempts, even Jack’s and Della’s, to extinguish it.
Robinson’s own poetic language makes Jack a book to savor. My copy is full of exclamation points and a rainbow of sticky notes marking all the quotes I want to remember — the author shines such a light into all the sorrows and joys of being a postlapsarian human. References to Scripture are also deftly interwoven into the text, accenting the poetry and amplifying the themes of love, loneliness, pride, redemption, and poverty, elevating, in addition, all that is at stake for Jack and Della through the question of how God’s grace acts in a world that is often blind to it. In this case, the drama of God’s grace is enacted in the midst of segregation laws that make interracial marriage a crime, and a family who want something larger for their daughter.
Jack is weighty without being overpowering, as deep and reflective as a work of theological literature (or literary theology) should be. It is at once transcendent and incarnational, expressive and provocative, romantic and tragic without being overblown. I would love to sit in a cemetery or a memorial garden with others and have the further and lengthy conversations this book warrants. This book will join Gilead, especially, as a much-beloved work. Robinson is the author I want to grow up to be like — insightful, visionary, authentic.
Christine Havens is a poet and writer, and a graduate of the Seminary of the Southwest, whose work has appeared in Anglican Theological Review and Forward Movement’s Daily Devo family subscription series.