Marilynne Robinson, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Humanities Medal, returns to the world of Gilead with Jack, the latest novel in one of the great works of contemporary American fiction
Jack tells the story of John Ames Boughton, the loved and grieved-over prodigal son of a Presbyterian minister in Gilead, Iowa, a drunkard and a ne’er-do-well. In segregated St. Louis sometime after World War II, Jack falls in love with Della Miles, an African-American high school teacher, also a preacher’s child, with a discriminating mind, a generous spirit and an independent will. Their fraught, beautiful story is one of Robinson’s greatest achievements.
Marilynne Robinson’s mythical world of Gilead, Iowa—the setting of her novels Gilead, Home, and Lila, and now Jack—and its beloved characters have illuminated and interrogated the complexities of American history, the power of our emotions, and the wonders of a sacred world. Jack is Robinson’s fourth novel in this now-classic series. In it, Robinson tells the story of John Ames Boughton, the prodigal son of Gilead’s Presbyterian minister, and his romance with Della Miles, a high school teacher who is also the child of a preacher. Their deeply felt, tormented, star-crossed interracial romance resonates with all the paradoxes of American life, then and now.
Robinson’s Gilead novels, which have won one Pulitzer Prize and two National Book Critics Circle Awards, are a vital contribution to contemporary American literature and a revelation of our national character and humanity.
I came to read Jack not having read any of the previous books in this series (although I do now own a copy of each of the three previous titles Gilead, Home and Lila).
Jack is a quiet and seemingly uneventful story. John Ames Boughton, known as Jack, meets Della Miles when they are locked into a St Louis cemetery overnight. Jack is homeless and many others in the same situation as him find places to hide away in the cemetery to sleep. It’s not allowed but it feels safer than on the streets. Jack worries about Della though. A woman, alone unable to leave the cemetery might come across a difficult time so he stays with her. They talk. They nap. They talk some more. Until the sun rises.
Della has found herself in a difficult situation, she is a black woman locked in a white persons cemetery. Not only that but she strikes up a conversation with a white man, Jack. His determination to stay with her is, on one hand, quite gentlemanly but, on the other hand, makes Della feel rather awkward. Still it’s comforting to feel cared for. In the very early morning just as the sun rises and as the cemetery gate is being opened Jack distracts the guard so that Della can slip out unseen.
This is how Jack and Della met. They are drawn to one another.
Della is a high school teacher; Jack is homeless and unemployed .
Jack becomes fixated on Della scouring the black area of St Louis in order to find her house and walk by it, loitering even, in the hope of a ‘chance’ meeting with Della. We find out quite a bit about Jack as he finds a job and a room to live in. He’s the estranged son of a preacher. Educated and loves to read especially poetry. Jack, however, has never been able to settle and finds that one of his talents is to steal things but this ultimately led to his downfall and a prison sentence. Since then he has been on the streets occasionally receiving money from his brother.
Della is a bright, hardworking person. Della enjoyed talking with Jack, who she liked. She is the daughter of a Bishop. She rents a home in St Louis where she teaches high school and is doing well.
Their relationship is frowned on by society and any cohabitation or marriage forbidden by law. This is post WWII USA of the 1950s. In the early 1960s interracial marriage was still unlawful; only in 1967 did the US Supreme Court (the Warren Court) unanimously rule in Loving v. Virginia that anti-miscegenation laws are unconstitutional.
So we follow Jack’s thoughts as the relationship progresses, stalls and comes under scrutiny from various people. Jack moves to Chicago when Della returns to her family trying to do ‘the right thing’ that is to break up the relationship.
This may be a quiet, gentle book but it tells a big story of what it would have been like for two people of different colour – one black, one white – and how difficult it would be to start a relationship and maintain that relationship in 1950’s America. How it is viewed from both sides and the main reasons for not getting involved are the repercussions not just from the State, the Law but from their fellow humans. That it would be simply easier to keep to a person’s own kind or expect trouble – the loss of work, physical intimidation and worse, the revulsion of some, the fear of some.
Jack, through the discussion with the minister whose church he attends and his thoughts around those discussions, further informs us of the social difficulties but also some of the struggles he has with religion and how that has influenced his family relationship.
This book doesn’t preach it simply tells a story one that adds layers to the Gilead series no doubt but which easily stands alone with the story of an interracial relationship. It’s observation on society, on poverty and homelessness at that time in the USA are very evocative but as is all to obvious is still happening today and still makes you wonder how these issues have not been addressed.
What will Jack and Della do? Can they be strong enough to make it work? Not all the questions are answered in the fullest sense. We are, perhaps, left to decide for ourselves what may ultimately become of Jack and Della’s love and their lives.
There are some beautiful passages, some horrible things happen. This is a slow read, one to ponder over and relish or wish things could have been so different. Indeed, to wish things could be different now and in some ways they are but all to often not. This book poses questions. About race relations, homelessness and religion. Perhaps the main or overarching one is – when will we be accepting of and able to live in harmony with one another?
Over the last year or so after a number of recent tragic and terrible deaths of black men at the hands of white men there has been much talk about and action through Black Lives Matter. It was a positive thing but it needs to be continued, ongoing until it is embedded not only into our laws but into the heart, mind and soul of everyone. Will that happen? Can it happen? I hope so. It’s been a long time coming.
A thought provoking book. One which I am glad to have read and would be more than happy to recommend.
My thanks to Virago for an eCopy of Jack via NetGalley in exchange for my thoughts on the book.
Marilynne Robinson is the recipient of a 2012 National Humanities Medal, awarded by President Barack Obama, for “her grace and intelligence in writing.” She is the author of Gilead, her second book, winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award; Home, her third book, winner of the Orange Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; and Lila, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her first novel, Housekeeping (1981), won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award. Robinson’s nonfiction books include The Givenness of Things, When I Was a Child I Read Books, Absence of Mind, The Death of Adam, and Mother Country. Marilynne Robinson was born in 1947. She lives in Iowa City, Iowa. She teaches at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
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