A New York Times Bestseller
NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST
NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD WINNER
A new American classic from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Gilead and Housekeeping
Marilynne Robinson, one of the greatest novelists of our time, returns to the town of Gilead in an unforgettable story of a girlhood lived on the fringes of society in fear, awe, and wonder.
Lila, homeless and alone after years of roaming the countryside, steps inside a small-town Iowa church-the only available shelter from the rain-and ignites a romance and a debate that will reshape her life. She becomes the wife of a minister, John Ames, and begins a new existence while trying to make sense of the life that preceded her newfound security.
Neglected as a toddler, Lila was rescued by Doll, a canny young drifter, and brought up by her in a hardscrabble childhood. Together they crafted a life on the run, living hand to mouth with nothing but their sisterly bond and a ragged blade to protect them. Despite bouts of petty violence and moments of desperation, their shared life was laced with moments of joy and love. When Lila arrives in Gilead, she struggles to reconcile the life of her makeshift family and their days of hardship with the gentle Christian worldview of her husband which paradoxically judges those she loves.
Revisiting the beloved characters and setting of Robinson's Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead and Home, a National Book Award finalist, Lila is a moving expression of the mysteries of existence that is destined to become an American classic.
About the Author
Marilynne Robinson is the author of the novels Home, Gilead (winner of the Pulitzer Prize), and Housekeeping, and four books of nonfiction, When I Was a Child I Read Books, Mother Country, The Death of Adam, and Absence of Mind. She teaches at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.
Hometown:Iowa City, Iowa
Date of Birth:November 26, 1943
Place of Birth:Sandpoint, Idaho
Education:B.A., Brown University, 1966
Read an Excerpt
The child was just there on the stoop in the dark, hugging herself against the cold, all cried out and nearly sleeping. She couldn’t holler anymore and they didn’t hear her anyway, or they might and that would make things worse. Somebody had shouted, Shut that thing up or I’ll do it! and then a woman grabbed her out from under the table by her arm and pushed her out onto the stoop and shut the door and the cats went under the house. They wouldn’t let her near them anymore because she picked them up by their tails sometimes. Her arms were all over scratches, and the scratches stung. She had crawled under the house to find the cats, but even when she did catch one in her hands it struggled harder the harder she held on to it and it bit her, so she let it go. Why you keep pounding at the screen door? Nobody gonna want you around if you act like that. And then the door closed again, and after a while night came. The people inside fought themselves quiet, and it was night for a long time. She was afraid to be under the house, and afraid to be up on the stoop, but if she stayed by the door it might open. There was a moon staring straight at her, and there were sounds in the woods, but she was nearly sleeping when Doll came up the path and found her there like that, miserable as could be, and took her up in her arms and wrapped her into her shawl, and said, “Well, we got no place to go. Where we gonna go?”
If there was anyone in the world the child hated worst, it was Doll. She’d go scrubbing at her face with a wet rag, or she’d be after her hair with a busted comb, trying to get the snarls out. Doll slept at the house most nights, and maybe she paid for it by sweeping up a little. She was the only one who did any sweeping, and she’d be cussing while she did it, Don’t do one damn bit of good, and someone would say, Then leave it be, dammit. There’d be people sleeping right on the floor, in some old mess of quilts and gunnysacks. You wouldn’t know from one day to the next.
When the child stayed under the table they would forget her most of the time. The table was shoved into a corner and they wouldn’t go to the trouble of reaching under to pull her out of there if she kept quiet enough. When Doll came in at night she would kneel down and spread that shawl over her, but then she left again so early in the morning that the child would feel the shawl slip off and she’d feel colder for the lost warmth of it, and stir, and cuss a little. But there would be hardtack, an apple, something, and a cup of water left there for her when she woke up. Once, there was a kind of toy. It was just a horse chestnut with a bit of cloth over it, tied with a string, and two knots at the sides and two at the bottom, like hands and feet. The child whispered to it and slept with it under her shirt.
Lila would never tell anyone about that time. She knew it would sound very sad, and it wasn’t, really. Doll had taken her up in her arms and wrapped her shawl around her. “You just hush now,” she said. “Don’t go waking folks up.” She settled the child on her hip and carried her into the dark house, stepping as carefully and quietly as she could, and found the bundle she kept in her corner, and then they went out into the chilly dark again, down the steps. The house was rank with sleep and the night was windy, full of tree sounds. The moon was gone and there was rain, so fine then it was only a tingle on the skin. The child was four or five, long-legged, and Doll couldn’t keep her covered up, but she chafed at her calves with her big, rough hand and brushed the damp from her cheek and her hair. She whispered, “Don’t know what I think I’m doing. Never figured on it. Well, maybe I did. I don’t know. I guess I probly did. This sure ain’t the night for it.” She hitched up her apron to cover the child’s legs and carried her out past the clearing. The door might have opened, and a woman might have called after them, Where you going with that child? and then, after a minute, closed the door again, as if she had done all decency required. “Well,” Doll whispered, “we’ll just have to see.”
The road wasn’t really much more than a path, but Doll had walked it so often in the dark that she stepped over the roots and around the potholes and never paused or stumbled. She could walk quickly when there was no light at all. And she was strong enough that even an awkward burden like a leggy child could rest in her arms almost asleep. Lila knew it couldn’t have been the way she remembered it, as if she were carried along in the wind, and there were arms around her to let her know she was safe, and there was a whisper at her ear to let her know that she shouldn’t be lonely. The whisper said, “I got to find a place to put you down. I got to find a dry place.” And then they sat on the ground, on pine needles, Doll with her back against a tree and the child curled into her lap, against her breast, hearing the beat of her heart, feeling it. Rain fell heavily. Big drops spattered them sometimes. Doll said, “I should have knowed it was coming on rain. And now you got the fever.” But the child just lay against her, hoping to stay where she was, hoping the rain wouldn’t end. Doll may have been the loneliest woman in the world, and she was the loneliest child, and there they were, the two of them together, keeping each other warm in the rain.
When the rain ended, Doll got to her feet, awkwardly with the child in her arms, and tucked the shawl around her as well as she could. She said, “I know a place.” The child’s head would drop back, and Doll would heft her up again, trying to keep her covered. “We’re almost there.”
It was another cabin with a stoop, and a dooryard beaten bare. An old black dog got up on his forelegs, then his hind legs, and barked, and an old woman opened the door. She said, “No work for you here, Doll. Nothing to spare.”
Doll sat down on the stoop. “Just thought I’d rest a little.”
“What you got there? Where’d you get that child?”
“Well, you better put her back.”
“Maybe. Don’t think I will, though.”
“Better feed her something, at least.”
Doll said nothing.
The old woman went into the house and brought out a scrap of corn bread. She said, “I was about to do the milking. You might as well go inside, get her in out of the cold.”
Doll stood with her by the stove, where there was just the little warmth of the banked embers. She whispered, “You hush. I got something for you here. You got to eat it.” But the child couldn’t rouse herself, couldn’t keep her head from lolling back. So Doll knelt with her on the floor to free her hands, and pinched off little pills of corn bread and put them in the child’s mouth, one after another. “You got to swallow.”
The old woman came back with a pail of milk. “Warm from the cow,” she said. “Best thing for a child.” That strong, grassy smell, raw milk in a tin cup. Doll gave it to her in sips, holding her head in the crook of her arm.
“Well, she got something in her, if she keeps it down. Now I’ll put some wood on the fire and we can clean her up some.”
When the room was warmer and the water in the kettle was warm, the old woman held her standing in a white basin on the floor by the stove and Doll washed her down with a rag and a bit of soap, scrubbing a little where the cats had scratched her, and on the chigger bites and mosquito bites where she had scratched herself, and where there were slivers in her knees, and where she had a habit of biting her hand. The water in the basin got so dirty they threw it out the door and started over. Her whole body shivered with the cold and the sting. “Nits,” the old woman said. “We got to cut her hair.” She fetched a razor and began shearing off the tangles as close to the child’s scalp as she dared—“I got a blade here. She better hold still.” Then they soaped and scrubbed her head, and water and suds ran into her eyes, and she struggled and yelled with all the strength she had and told them both they could rot in hell. The old woman said, “You’ll want to talk to her about that.”
Doll touched the soap and tears off the child’s face with the hem of her apron. “Never had the heart to scold her. Them’s about the only words I ever heard her say.” They made her a couple of dresses out of flour sacks with holes cut in them for her head and arms. They were stiff at first and smelled of being saved in a chest or a cupboard, and they had little flowers all over them, like Doll’s apron.
* * *
It seemed like one long night, but it must have been a week, two weeks, rocking on Doll’s lap while the old woman fussed around them.
“You don’t have enough trouble, I guess. Carrying off a child that’s just going to die on you anyway.”
“Ain’t going to let her die.”
“Oh? When’s the last time you got to decide about something?”
“If I left her be where she was, she’da died for sure.”
“Well, maybe her folks won’t see it that way. They know you took her? What you going to say when they come looking for her? She’s buried in the woods somewhere? Out by the potato patch? I don’t have troubles enough of my own?”
Doll said, “Nobody going to come looking.”
“You probly right about that. That’s the spindliest damn child I ever saw.”
But the whole time she talked she’d be stirring a pot of grits and blackstrap molasses. Doll would give the child a spoonful or two, then rock her a little while, then give her another spoonful. She rocked her and fed her all night long, and dozed off with her cheek against the child’s hot forehead.
The old woman got up now and then to put more wood in the stove. “She keeping it down?”
“She taking any water?”
When the old woman went away again Doll would whisper to her, “Now, don’t you go dying on me. Put me to all this bother for nothing. Don’t you go dying.” And then, so the child could barely hear, “You going to die if you have to. I know. But I got you out of the rain, didn’t I? We’re warm here, ain’t we?”
After a while the old woman again. “Put her in my bed if you want. I guess I won’t be sleeping tonight, either.”
“I got to make sure she can breathe all right.”
“Let me set with her then.”
“She’s clinging on to me.”
“Well.” The old woman brought the quilt from her bed and spread it over them.
The child could hear Doll’s heart beating and she could feel the rise and fall of her breath. It was too warm and she felt herself struggling against the quilt and against Doll’s arms and clinging to her at the same time with her arms around her neck.
Copyright © 2014 by Marilynne Robinson
Reading Group Guide
Returning to the beloved fictional town that has inspired millions of readers worldwide, Marilynne Robinson now turns her eye to a homeless girl raised far from the comfortable lives of the characters in Gilead and Home. In Lila, we explore a hardscrabble world of shrewd drifters who emphasize self-sufficiency, not self-sacrifice. When Lila seeks shelter from the rain in a country church, she unwittingly sets herself on an entirely new path, capturing the heart of the venerable Reverend John Ames and eventually becoming his wife. As Lila struggles to reconcile her former days of hardship and danger with Ames's gentle Christian worldview, she embarks on a profound journey of faith, doubt, and the mysteries of survival.
This guide is designed to enrich your discussion of Lila. We hope that the following questions will enhance your reading group's experience of this deeply moving novel.
1. The novel's opening paragraphs vividly capture the deprivations experienced by young Lila. How do these experiences affect her immersion in the culture of Gilead? As she reaches adulthood, what does Lila believe about the nature of life?
2. How did your perception of Doll shift throughout the novel? What motivates her to rescue Lila? What do the two girls teach each other about loyalty and its limitations?
3. Lila recalls the day she ventured into John Ames's candlelit church (echoing Ames's tender recollection of that scene, which was presented in Gilead). Doane had told Lila, "Churches just want your money," yet she needed refuge. What does Ames's church want from Lila?
4. As she copies difficult passages from the Bible, Lila continually returns to questions about human suffering and misfortune. What is your response to this debate? How does Lila's practical wisdom compare to the philosophical wisdom of Ames and Boughton?
5. What is the significance of Doll's knifeboth literally (as a weapon) and as a metaphor? Can someone from Ames's world of gentleness have the capacity to understand what the knife means to Lila?
6. What lies at the heart of Lila and Ames's decision to marry? What needs and longings do they share? How does their relationship reflect the broader needs and longings of humanity?
7. Which of the novel's Bible quotations resonated most strongly with you? How were you taught to approach a sacred text?
8. Does the age difference between Lila and Ames create an imbalance in their marriage?
9. How is Lila's sense of self affected by her days in St. Louis? Was she wounded or empowered by that chapter of her life?
10. While Gilead and Home emphasize the relationships between fathers and their children (particularly their sons), Lila accentuates the perspective of women. How does this affect the storyline and the imagery?
11. What beliefs does Doll instill in Lila about nurturing a child?
12. Discuss the time and place depicted in Lila. What were your family's circumstances during the mid-twentieth century? Is contemporary America less connected to the natural world and to the contemplative aspects of life? What insight can an urban reader in the Information Age gain from Lila and Ames?
13. Discuss the concept of trust as it plays out in Lila. What are the characters' greatest barriers to trust? What does it take to quell such fear? Is it as simple as sharing all that we knowespecially our most vulnerable moments? In the novel, how is trust distinguished from faith?
14. How does Lila reconcile her husband's religious views with her life before she arrived in Gilead? Does she undergo a conversion in Gilead or does she arrive at something else entirely?
15. What do the closinglines of Lila tell us about life, and the absence of life?
Guide written by Amy Clements
Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Marilynne Robinson
A new Marilynne Robinson novel is a rare treat. Lila, just published by FSG and already nominated for this year's National Book Award for Fiction, continues the story she began in the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel Gilead and returned to in Home. Ever since her first novel, Housekeeping, came out in 1980, Robinson's words have resonated with readers. There's nothing flashy in her prose and something of another generation about her style. There's a gentle urgency to it that unfolds gracefully. Her books are even more revelatory the second time around. It's easy to miss the subtleties when you're initially so engaged in the narrative.
In Lila, Robinson tells the story of the minister's wife, who we're first introduced to in Gilead. Lila comes from a tough upbringing. She is stolen away from a bad family situation by a woman named Doll and spends much of her childhood on the road with Doll and fellow drifters. She works in a whorehouse before finding her way to the town of Gilead. She first meets John Ames at his church, and a relationship slowly blooms between them, despite her reluctance to let anyone get close to her. "She knew he was thinking and praying about how to make her feel at home," Robinson writes. "She had never been at home in all the years of her life." Our homes and where we come from have always been a central theme in Robinson's work: she excels at writing about lonely people who are trying to find spaces of their own. Lila is a testament to how love, both romantic and familial, can sustain us.
Last month, I asked Robinson some questions via email about her marvelous novel. Michele Filgate
The Barnes & Noble Review: In Gilead, you focused on the Reverend John Ames. In Home, you tell the story of Ames's friend Reverend Robert Boughton and his family. In Lila, we return to the same town and learn about the life of Reverend Ames's wife. How difficult was it to revisit characters in each subsequent book? Did you already have their back-stories mapped out?
Marilynne Robinson: I have found that the characters in my novels stay with me after a book has ended. I know them in some sense. I never map anything out. I just think until I am secure in the voice of one of them, and then let the character unfold.
BNR: Loneliness is something that bonds the Reverend and Lila and it's no surprise. The Reverend lost his first wife and newborn child, and Lila came from a tough background. At one point, you say: "He looked as if he'd had his share of loneliness, and that was all right. It was one thing she understood about him." Does this mutual comprehension make them outsiders or just regular humans, trying to make sense of their lives?
MR: They are regular humans who have been sensitized by experience to the fact that loneliness is a major part of any life. I think that there is a tendency in our society now to treat social ties as a measure of personal health or worth. So people don't acknowledge loneliness in themselves, and don't appreciate its benefits, the reflection and attentiveness that come with it, the deepened acquaintance with oneself. Granting, of course, that there can be too much of a good thing.
BNR: Lila isn't educated. She's smart and excelled in her one year of schooling, but she lived a life on the go with drifters and she looks to the Reverend for knowledge. Yet she's philosophical and curious about the meaning of life and that leads her to exploring religion. The woman who stole her away and raised her (Doll) and the group of people she grew up with were not religious, and they didn't turn out so well, despite those of them who had good intentions. How do you think about the relationship between formal education and faith.
MR: Most institutions of higher learning in the West were founded by and for religious denominations. The supposed alienation of education and faith is a recent phenomenon. At the same time, neither education nor the lack of it predisposes one to faith. The people Lila grew up with are essentially outside the culture in which the language and sacraments of religion are taught and learned. But they are as good as most people, even though they have so much difficulty to deal with. Things turn out badly for them because they are poor during the Depression. This has nothing to do with their not being religious.
BNR: Trust is a big issue for Lila. She doesn't trust anyone: not even Doll, who rescues her as a child. How can people navigate through the complicated world that we live in when it's hard to believe anyone?
MR: People have been through times infinitely more difficult than these. I think we need a better sense of history. A great deal that is of value has been maintained and created through oppression, plagues, famines, and persecutions. If we focused on using the opportunities we have, which are very great by any standard health, longevity, comfort and privacy, endless resources of culture and information we would not just navigate this world, we would leave a good inheritance to succeeding generations.
BNR: At one point when talking about Lila, you write: "There was more shame in life than she could bear." She stays in a shack when she first moves to Gilead, just trying to survive. "Life is hard in the spring, and still it all felt like something she had almost died for the want of." Despite all this hardship, she comes through as a fighter. Does that set her apart from your other characters?
MR: It is hardship that makes clear who the "fighters" are. None of the other characters have exactly her difficulties to deal with, but that doesn't mean they don't have their own, or that they would not deal with hardships that came to them. Their immediate ancestors were frontier Abolitionists. No one was ever tougher than that. More generally, people who lived in a period when maternal, infant and childhood mortality were still high would have been tougher than most of us can imagine.
BNR: Right after she marries the Reverend, she notices him praying in their house. "And then she thought, 'Praying looks just like grief. Like shame. Like regret.' " Is sadness or grief necessarily linked to revelation?
MR: No. But they inevitably deepen understanding.
BNR: Can you talk a little bit about the origins of the characters in Gilead? Did you know when you started writing that novel that it would lead to other books?
MR: Characters more or less present themselves to me. I don't know their origins. I think if I did, if I seemed to myself to fabricate them, I could not induce suspension of disbelief in myself in the way writing fiction requires. The mind has a complex life that can seem quite autonomous? dreams, obsessions, unwilled memory are all instances of this. It is true that I have been attentive to history and theology in ways that determine the world of these novels. I did not intend to write the other books when I wrote Gilead.
BNR: Are there particular books or writers that informed your thinking about Lila?
MR: I suppose I am influenced by any number of books, and books in general. I saw a quote from Robert Schumann to this effect Composing music is remembering a song no one has ever heard before. I like a book to be full of the memory of what it is, a voice in an endless conversation, and yet at the same time to be new.
BNR: You write both fiction and nonfiction. Do you enjoy writing one more than the other? What are the unique challenges of each genre?
MR: I like to work on one or the other, depending on what is on my mind. The challenges are too particular to each piece of work to characterize the genre. BNR: How important is plot to you do you think in sentences, characters, or timelines?
MR: Character, then sentence, though each is entirely dependent on the other. I find that timelines more or less take care of themselves.
BNR: What's the number one piece of advice you give your graduate students at the Iowa Writers' Workshop?
MR: Never, ever condescend to the reader. Assume you are writing for someone better and smarter than you are. This will protect you from conventionalism, faddishness, and cliché.
October 22, 2014