Back Home in Gilead

By Jones, L. Gregory | The Christian Century, November 4, 2008 | Go to article overview

Back Home in Gilead


Jones, L. Gregory, The Christian Century


WHAT IS Jack Boughton really like? How will he respond to Reverend Ames's blessing as he gets on the bus to leave Gilead again? Will he embrace the grace and forgiveness of the blessing? Or will he return to his old ways?

Questions like these have run through the minds of readers of Marilynne Robinson's Gilead when I've led book discussions with students, laity and clergy over the past four years. Some people fervently believe that Jack will turn a new leaf; they are hoping against hope that people do change and are transformed by grace.

Others argue fervently that Jack's character is too firmly entrenched to change--after all, didn't he flee town again, abandoning his dying father? Can a leopard change its spots? Even Jack wonders; he once asked Reverend Ames whether there were some people who are simply predestined to perdition.

Gilead readers will be delighted to discover that Robinson's new novel, Home, returns to 1950s Gilead, this time focusing on the Boughton household and the interactions of Jack, his sister Glory and their father. Like Gilead, it is a story told in beautiful prose, with astute theological insights and finely drawn characters.

In Home, people remain mysteries to each other.

In Home as in Gilead John Ames and Robert Boughton are pastors who embody grace as well as perseverance, and the contours of their lifelong friendship are portrayed with subtle beauty. We also rediscover the complexities of Jack Boughton's life--the child he abandoned, the long stretches of time in which he had no contact with his family, his tendency to be a loner, the ways in which he's been "a wound in his father's heart." Home's story fills out Jack's character. We learn more about him in his conversations with his sister and father.

At the same time, however, Home challenges readers to rethink our overall assessment of Jack, Reverend Ames and their relationship. Gilead portrays Ames and his relationship to Jack with such richness that readers tend to adopt his perspective without really thinking about Jack's point of view. They focus more on how Jack will respond to Reverend Ames's gracious blessing and less on why Jack is leaving in the first place or what he might think about Ames.

In Home, Jack's return to Gilead is marked by his tortured desire to reestablish relationship with his father and with Reverend Ames. He emerges as a person who struggles with his own sin and longs for home, reconciliation and love.

Jack reaches out tentatively to the Ames family and screws up the courage to visit Ames's church. …

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