Gilead & Home by Marilynne Robinson

If ever two books should be read together, these two should. I’ve read them both twice now, and they are among my favorite individually. Together, they are even more compelling.

Gilead won the Pulitzer a few years ago. I read it soon after. Read it, and bought extra copies to give away. I bought Home as soon as it came out in 2009, but I waited a few months to read it out of fear that I’d be disappointed. The second book couldn’t possibly be as good as the first, I thought.

It’s better. Home is even more wrenching and even more beautifully and compassionately written than Gilead. But to take it to the next level, you have to read the books as interlocking pieces of the same narrative.

The first time through I read Gilead first and then waited some time–as much as a few years–before I read Home. The second time I read Home first. I was rereading it for a book club meeting. I immediately followed by rereading Gilead so that I could refresh my memory on the other side of the story. This is the same story, more or less, told in two different points of view in the two different books. Things that puzzle in one book are answered in the other.

If you must pick an order, I prefer reading Home first and then Gilead for the simple reason that Gilead ends on a more redeeming note. It offers some hope for situation that seems all but hopeless in Home.

Flannery O’Connor said that her characters are always offered a “moment of grace,” which they usually reject because that’s the way human being are. People are offered redemption, but they fail to take it.

I thought of that again and again while reading Jack Boughton’s story. Both books really are the story of John Ames (Jack) Boughton, though Home is told from the point of view of Jack’s sister Glory, and Gilead is told from the point of view of John Ames, a Congregational minister and the closest friend of Jack’s Presbyterian minister father.

Both books are about the concept of grace and the complicated experience of grace a man like Jack–an alcoholic estranged from his family most of his life–might have. They’re about jealousy, resentment, forgiveness, love, family, and belief. They are not religious books in so much as they are books of literary realism with religious themes, but they offer tender, compassionate, thoughtful approaches to those themes.

Gilead is told in the form of epistles from an old and dying minister to his young son. John Ames knows that he will not live to see his child grow up, so he writes to him what he wants him to know as an adult. The letters start out providing some family history, some theology, and some personal feelings, but they begin to drift more and more into the story of Jack Boughton and Ames’s own efforts to forgive Jack for bearing his name and failing it in so many ways.

Home is a prodigal son tale told by the sister of the son who returns looking for help only to find his father dying and his father’s friend apparently rejecting every effort he makes to talk. It’s the story of the powerful and excruciating love a family has for a son and brother they have feared they would lose from the very day he was born, a son and brother they have lost for twenty years and do not know how to bring back into the family fold. It’s about that man’s deep pain, and his struggles to find his way through his own sea of doubt and of damaged relationships to some sort of livable place in this world for himself and his love for others.

I won’t go any more into the plot details now. I’ll just leave it at read them. Read them both. Read them together. Read them one way and then the other.

I’ll also offer you this. At the end of Gilead, Ames writes to his son that “belief is not the same thing as doctrine,” meaning that to doubt doctrine is not the same thing as to doubt God.

Grace, he says, is something that is already in us, and people can’t truly doubt things that are part of their makeup. They can only find other ways of understanding them. To think there aren’t other ways to understand grace than doctrine might teach is to limit a thing that is limitless.

With this, he gives us back the grace that is rejected time and again, not just by Jack but by all of the characters in their failures to really understand Jack enough to help him or help themselves know what to feel or think around him. With this, John Ames gives us a chance to end the story with a sense of hope.

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