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By Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat
Farrar, Straus and Giroux 09/08 Hardcover $25.00
Marilynne Robinson won a Pulitzer Prize for her spiritual novel Gilead (2004). Here is a companion set in 1956 in the same Iowa town. Glory is a 38-year-old former schoolteacher who, following a failed romance, returns home to care for her dying father, the Rev. Robert Broughton. Her days are filled with housekeeping and nursing. But this regular routine is thrown aside when news arrives that Jack, the prodigal son among the eight children, is coming back to Gilead. He left home 20 years ago and did not even return for his mother's funeral. Rev. Broughton has nothing but regret about failing to be a good father to his son. And he honestly admits the hurt that Jack has caused him:
" 'You feel that heart in there? My life became your life, like lighting one candle from another. Isn't that a mystery? I've thought about it many times. And yet you always did the opposite of what I hoped for, the exact opposite. So I tried not to hope for anything at all, except that we wouldn't lose you. So of course we did. That was the one hope I couldn't put aside.' "
Jack's return gives him an opportunity to reconnect with his sister, and they begin a dance of attraction and aversion as they reminisce about the past and try to catch up on each other's lives. At first she feels displaced and overshadowed in her father's eyes. But then she is soothed when Jack admits that she might be the only friend he has in the world. Though she once adored him, her brother now registers on her senses as "the weight of the family's heart, the unnamed absence, like the hero in a melancholy tale." Jack is an alcoholic. He has no job, has been to prison, and has married a minister's daughter and had a son. But there are roadblocks to their relationship. Jack's self-disgust saddens his sister and father but there seems no way to pull him out of his funk. Rev. Broughton perks up when his son asks him to explain predestination and this gives him a chance to talk about God's love. But then there is this exchange:
"Glory said, 'It's been hard for him to come here. You should be kinder to him.'
"A moment passed, and her father stirred from his reverie. 'Kinder to him! I thanked God for him every day of his life, no matter how much grief, how much sorrow and at the end of it all there is only more grief, more sorrow, and his life will go on that way, no help for it now. You see something beautiful in a child, and you almost live for it, you feel as though you would die for it, but it isn't yours to keep or protect. And if the child becomes a man who has no respect for himself, it's just destroyed till you can hardly remember what it was ' "
In such intense scenes Robinson nails down the pain and the anguish in father and son clashes. She also captures the doubled-edged sword of Protestant Christianity with its love ethic on the one hand and its emphasis on judgment on the other. Jack's father wants to save his son but is unable to do so. The two men work mightily to forgive each other but it is not an easy task because Jack cannot forgive himself.
So much spiritual work is done in the family it's where we suffer and learn as best we can, no matter what our age. Mother Teresa once said, "We must make our homes centers of compassion and forgive endlessly." Robinson would agree.
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