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Sara Beth West

(@fiftytwowest)

is a reader and a writer, offering book reviews and interviews with leading writers and thinkers.

On Change and Marilynne Robinson's Home

It is a thoroughly familiar scene: a child now grown returns home, and in the first few minutes or hours, as she visits with her aging parents, she is also taking inventory.


Yes, daddy's chair is still there, worn in the seat and in need of a good cleaning. And the Christmas cards are still out, celebrating the continued existence of her now-ancient Great Aunt Ruby in Indianapolis. Her Nanny is gone, but her Valentine's Day cross-stitch still hangs on its hook, taking the place of the small winter scene, soon to be replaced with Lincoln's profile and then the shamrock and then the Easter egg after that. The piano needs to be tuned, and the F below middle C still sticks.


This scene is at the heart of Marilynne Robinson's Home. When Glory Boughton returns home to care for her ailing father, she finds so much still the same: the heavy drapes, the dark rooms, the sturdy furniture, the clutter of knickknacks. At the same time, she finds it mysteriously changed, her father unspeakably frail, the house somehow bereft:

Why should this staunch and upright house seem to her so abandoned? So heartbroken?

Home concerns itself entirely with this question: how can something seem so much the same and also hold within it the potential for so much change?

Readers of Robinson's well-loved Gilead enter Home already familiar with the events of this story: two aged preachers, beloved friends since boyhood, are nearing the end of their lives. But where Gilead focuses on the Reverend Ames and his young son, Home takes us inside the walls of Reverend Boughton's house, where he and his wife raised eight children, including Glory and, of course, Jack.


Set in 1956, the town of Gilead is situated some distance from the heart of the Civil Rights movement, but that thrumming heartbeat of change is never far from this novel's center. Jack, often cast as the prodigal son, has returned after 20 years away, broken in ways he mostly can't bear to mention. He, too, upon his arrival confronts the "utter sameness" of the old home place:

She saw him put his hand on the shoulder of their mother's chair, touch the fringe on a lampshade, as if to confirm for himself that the uncanny persistence of half-forgotten objects, all in their old places, was not some trick of the mind. Nothing about that house ever did change, except to fade or scar or wear.

It startles Jack even as it comforts him. The same could be said for the way Glory cares for him. He makes her angry, frustrates her, confounds her, but then there she'll be, in the kitchen making dinner or ready for a stiflingly boring game of checkers. Slowly, he comes to rely on her, to let himself trust her and the old homeplace, in ways he likely never did as a young man.


But Jack is no longer a young man. He is a man with a considerable past, one that haunts him and haunts his father. Jack asks hard questions -- about politics, society, predestination, faith. At the heart of all his hard questions, though, seems to be this: is change really possible, or are we bound to always be what we have always been? This question is both personal and national, in Jack's mind. He is desperate with hope that things might really change. In those terrifying early years of the Civil Rights movement, surely many were wondering the same thing: is change, change of this magnitude, even possible?


And though Jack fills up every room he enters, this story is just as much about Glory. She, too, wishes for change. But in her careful consistency, she inadvertently gives Jack exactly what he needs. For to consider the possibility of transformation, there must be a foundation of trust. And Glory embodies the grace that old Boughton always hoped to hold out for his prodigal son, Jack. When, as a boy, Jack tells his father that their bitter old neighbor had said his father deserved him, his father responded,

"Did she say that? Well now, that was kind of her. I will be sure to thank her. I hope I do deserve you, Jack."

He says these powerful words, but time and again, it is his father that hurts or shames Jack. Glory, on the other hand, like their mother before her, lives out that kindness. She is unchanging in her love for Jack, boundless in her ability to forgive. But even as she is the picture of sacrificial steadiness, Glory is being changed. Changed by coming to terms with her past, changed by the tentative hope of loving her brother, changed by watching her father die.


For that is the real, inexorable change of the book. Old Boughton is ailing; he will soon die. The reality of aging, and the change it daily insists upon, is on every page. Between Ames and Boughton, there is a favorite story that never fails to make them laugh together.

The joke seemed to be that once they were very young and now they were very old, and that they had been the same day after day and were somehow at the end of it all so utterly changed.

The book doesn't offer an answer to the question of whether a man or a country can ever really change. At the same time, it insists that change is the one thing a man will do whether he wants to or not.

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