The plot of Marilynne Robinson’s new novel Home is fairly simple: prodigal son returns home. The prodigal is 43-year-old Jack Boughton, and “home” is the small town of Gilead, Iowa, during the 1950s. Jack’s ailing father, the Presbyterian minister Robert Boughton, welcomes his favorite son (of eight children) home with the proverbial fatted calf—which, in this case, is more like chicken and dumplings prepared by Jack’s sister Glory, who also has returned home, after a failed romance.
These events also happen to be the same events occurring in Robinson’s previous novel, Gilead (2004): the same characters, the same time frame, but told through the perspective of Rev. Boughton’s lifelong friend, Congregationalist minister John Ames. In Gilead, Jack (full name: John Ames Boughton) appears as Ames’s namesake and nemesis, the only person this eminently gracious man struggles to forgive. Ames’s internal battle with his feelings towards Jack gives the novel shape and resolution, but most of its pages are filled with Ames’s reflections on the small miracles of his everyday life with his wife and their young son. Gilead is Ames’s story, not Jack’s.
It would be tempting to say that Home is Jack’s story—and it is, to the extent that it records his tentative attempts to reconcile with his father and find redemption. However, his story is told through the perspective of his sister Glory. She is, in essence, the prodigal son’s older brother, and, like that other brother, she is not only apparently overlooked by her father, but by some readers as well. Robinson makes it easy to forget that Home is Glory’s story, because Glory is focused on fulfilling the needs of those around her, her father and brother; Glory “tells” us more about them than about herself. But that self-forgetful focus on the men in her life reveals something of the predicament of a woman in 1950s small-town America.
While Jack is still struggling to find home, Glory fears being trapped by home. She had dreamed of domestic bliss—happy children and a white-picket-fence—with her fiancé, clinging to this dream even in the face of the fiancé’s clear unsuitability. At age 38—ancient in the 1950s!—she is relinquishing that hope, but not quite willing to reconcile herself to spending the rest of her life in Gilead. She tells Jack, “This is a nightmare I’ve had a hundred times. The one where all the rest of you go off and begin your lives and I am left in an empty house full of ridiculous furniture and unreadable books, waiting for someone to notice I’m missing and come back for me. And nobody does.”
This is close as Glory ever gets to expressing resentment. Unlike the prodigal son in Jesus’ parable, she never goes to her father and complains, “It’s not fair! Where’s my fatted calf?” Nor is Rev. Boughton a complete parallel to the father in the parable: though his enthusiastic welcome of Jack makes him a partial embodiment of God’s grace to the undeserving (i.e., all of us), he is human, an aging human, and his growing senility has the contrary effect of making him remember that which he most wants to forget: Jack’s past sins towards the family and the community. (And, unlike the father in the parable, Boughton really does neglect Glory, whereas in the parable the older brother only feels overlooked.)
Over the years, I’ve heard so many Christians compare themselves to the prodigal son’s brother. If we haven’t had a dramatic conversion story, but rather a long and quiet residence in the kingdom of God, we may feel a little envious of the former drug addict who finds his way to Jesus. He can give a stirring testimony; who would want to listen to ours?
However, in Gilead, Robinson has already proven that the quotidian details of a devout Christian’s life can be compelling—not only for the faithful, but for the literati (Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2005). I’m still not sure what to make of the end of Home—Glory finds renewed hope, asserting that “The Lord is wonderful,” and I think this makes sense, given her character, but her changed attitude comes about rather suddenly (and I won’t say more, to avoid spoilers). In Robinson’s tale, the prodigal’s sibling finds reconciliation. It makes sense that this would happen in Gilead, where John Ames lives; like no other literary protagonist, Ames embodies joy in the father’s/Father’s promise that “you are always with me, all that is mine is yours.” Glory Boughton may stand in for those of us who are slower to trust that promise, slower to realize we are already home.