I’ve been rereading Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead books to prepare for the latest installment, Jack, which was published in the fall. I recently finished the second volume, Home.
This book is an extended meditation on the parable of the Prodigal Son. Yet there’s a twist in this retelling.
In the parable, the son returns, there is a big party, and the focus shifts to the older son and his bitterness. In Robinson’s Home, Jack (the son) returns, but he cannot stay. There is too much in his past that haunts his old house, town, and family for him to remain.
Home made me ponder the grief of the sinner in new ways. Jack made so many mistakes in his youth that his reputation hangs like a fog in the town. And he feels it most of all.
Jack’s father has always longed for his son’s return—they haven’t seen each other for twenty years. And now that the father is dying, this homecoming seems like the happy ending so many have wanted. It looks like the parable.
But Jack can’t stay. He cannot face his siblings and their families as they gather to say goodbye. He cannot be present among so many people to whom he is so notorious.
As a reader, I was rooting for Jack. His life had been hard—though this hardness was chiefly due to his choices, the weight and resistance of a difficult life is still worth grieving. I wanted Jack to stay and turn the corner. I wanted good things for him. But he embodied a restlessness born of shame and sadness, and staying would intensify those emotions in a way that was unbearable.
The ideal of home is precious—a place where we are safe, provided for, and loved beyond questioning. And yet in this life, this ideal is too far away for some. We are all prone to wander, and for some this is literal.
Robinson’s writing is wonderful and her characters are vivid. If growing in empathy is one worthy reason (among many) to read fiction, Home is a case study. I saw the world from the perspectives of three characters with whom I have little in common.
Home gave me more to ponder than most of the fiction I’ve read in the past year or two.
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