March 2021 Open Book Group – Lila by Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson is frequently named as one of America’s most significant writers. Lila is the third book in her Gilead trilogy. Gilead (OBG June 2014) won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction,, Home. The Orange Prize for Fiction and Lila The National Book Award. All three books are set Gilead, a nondescript, fictional town surrounded by the corn prairies of Iowa. While each book can be read alone, together they follow the lives of interconnecting characters. Lila makes a cameo appearance in Gilead.

 Lila is set in the1930s during The Great Depression in the Dust Bowl ravaged states. We meet an older woman going by the assumed name of Doll. She has kidnapped/rescued a severely neglected and malnourished 5-year-old child who she names Lila. Doll has a mysterious scar on her face. She and Lila go on the run together. Doll hides in the shadows fearful of being recognised and having Lila taken away from her.

 Doll and Lila live in extreme poverty, camping out at night and foraging for food from the land. They join a band of travellers and move from place to place trying to find work and shelter from the dust storms. When Doll is employed as a housekeeper they find stability for a short time so Lila can go to school to learn to read and write. Soon they are back on the road. Doll gets into a knife fight, with a man, possibly with Lila’s father who has come to claim her. She kills him and disappears leaving Lila to fend for herself. Lila goes to Saint Louis to work in a brothel but she is not a very good whore. The “Mrs” finds her employment as a cleaner. After a year, with money saved up, she escapes and hitchhikes to Iowa ending up in Gilead. She camps out in a shack in the woods. Walking into town one day Lila is drawn to the church by the sounds of singing inside. She notices the 67-year-old kindly Reverend John Ames, who is traumatised by the early death of his wife and child. He notices her. Over the coming months, they enter into a shy and tentative relationship expressed in few words where are trust is hard to gain. Lila is convinced her past will catch up with her and Ames will ask her to leave. Reverend Ames cannot believe 30 -year-old Lila is interested in him and is convinced she will leave. The pain of the death of his first wife and child haunts him  Their courtship revolves around theological discussions and Lila’s growing interest in books in the Old Testament. She agrees to be baptised, they marry and have a child.

 The story is told in shifting timelines. We see the same events from different characters point of view, mostly through listening to their internal thoughts.

 A description of the plot barely scratches the surface. There are layers and layers to this novel ripe for unpeeling.

 When the 17 OBGers were let out of the starting gate the discussion set off at a furious pace. Our immediate response was Lila is an intellectually challenging read and Robinson is a genius. Her writing is sublime. Members noted how moved they were by several scenes; after Doll kidnapped/rescued young Lila how tenderly she cleaned her and clothed her, the description of the landscape the travellers moved through, and Lila’s voiceless empathy when she found the boy hiding in her shack.

We noted Robinson imbued a feeling of dread towards the end of the book with Lila holding onto her only possession from her travelling days, Doll’s knife. The symbolism of the knife was clear – Doll had used it to kill, what did Lila need it for? Its unsettling presence reflected a darker side of Lila’s character. Was it all going to end in tears? We were pleased it didn’t but also gratified that Robinson hadn’t given us a saccharine happy ending, rather one of quiet acceptance of the relationship, at the moment. A member raised the symbolism of the wind. Lila is enthralled by the wind which, like Doll, can be both violent and gentle.

We enjoyed Robinson’s technique of viewing her characters’ motivations and actions through both their own eyes and those of the other characters. Did it matter if you hadn’t read and met these people in the previous two books in the trilogy? No, however, there were obtuse references to the past, particularly about Jack, Reverend Ames companion, Reverend Broughton’s son. Spotting these rewarded those who had diligently read Gilead and Home this month. Robinson’s text could be further mined. One member opined that the baby might not even be the Reverend’s citing there were subtle clues she may have been pregnant when she arrived at Gilead, that Reverend Broughton’s other sons showed an interest in Lila early on, and the baby came early.

We discussed both Reverend Ames insecurity that Lila would leave him and Lila’s insecurity that the Reverend would ask her to leave when he saw her for what she was. One member provided a light bulb moment when she pointed out that Lila wasn’t frightened of the Reverend Ames’ opinion, rather the constant “should I stay or should I go now” was a way of maintaining her dignity. She was giving herself the choice whether she stayed or not. This thought opened us to consider that Lila did not view her past life with shame, she knew how to survive and could do so again. Cue symbolism of the knife. As readers, sitting comfortably in Balmain, the poverty endured by itinerant workers during the depression was horrifying, but Robinson showed there was joy even in darkest times – Lila playing with prankster Mellie, the comradeship around the campfire. Another member agreed. It was an equal relationship. Reverent Ames had lived in Gilead all his life, following in the footsteps of his fathers and his grandfather’s religious calling whereas Lila was far more worldly-wise.

We conceded we were out of our depth with the biblical references. Lila seeks to better herself by studying the books of Ezekiel and Job. In these texts she finds reflections of her past life. Lila questions Reverend Ames about existence and why good, unbaptised people, like Doll and the travellers, cannot enter heaven. Lila has no desire to go there if she can’t see Doll again. Some members responded favourably to Reverend Ames’ convoluted responses, informed by Robinson’s Calvinist faith. One member noted Lila’s name means “born out of darkness”. She argued the book is about American Christianity – Lila coming out of darkness into light. Others found it all too ‘goddy” and turned off at this point

One member broke through the orthodoxy of the group. She conceded her reading had been cursory. However, the first half of the novel grinding through The Depression had bored her and the second half of poor, young, orphan girl with issues attracted to, and rescued by, a rich, older man with issues, have a baby and live happily ever after, was the same plot she’d read in everything from Grapes of Wrath to Jane Eyre to Mills and Boone. Fair play.

The conversation galloped along way past our allotted hour. The Chair reluctantly had to reign it in. Was it the book? Was it the joy of meeting face-to-face, out of lockdown, with a pent-up need to get back normal? Whatever, it was a particularly satisfying OBG discussion. One of our best!

And there’s more…

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