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Light & Beachy or Guilt & Dysfunction

Hey, Radio Readers! I’m Jane Holwerda from Dodge City, Kansas, and it’s Summer Reads! Some readers may go for light, beachy reads in the summer. Me? I like to go for guilt, dysfunction, with a soupcon of forgiveness.

Hey, Radio Readers! I’m Jane Holwerda from Dodge City, Kansas, and it’s Summer Reads! Some readers may go for light, beachy reads in the summer. Me? I like to go for guilt, dysfunction, with a soupcon of forgiveness.

The best author for this combination is Marilynne Robinson. She is one of those extraordinary writers respected for scholarship, essays, and novels. As a writer of fiction, she’s been awarded a Pulitzer, more than one National Book Critics Award, and a Library of Congress Prize. In 2012, she was awarded a National Humanities Medal, which is like a life-time achievement award, calling out especially the qualities of “grace and intelligence in [her] writing.”

The book of hers I’m reading now is the fourth in what is known as her “Gilead” series of novels. Published over the span of twenty years, the events of each of the novels occur within a few years in mid-1950s rural America. The novels share the same characters, with the first and third novels focusing on the Ames family and the second and fourth novels focusing upon the Boughton family. The fathers of the two families are both friends and ministers. So…if the phrase “Gilead series” evokes for you a Christian Bible story, a healing oil, a kind of willow tree, or a 19th century African American spiritual, then you’ve likely a good sense of the themes and ideas of Robinson’s novels and broken, wounded characters, yet there’s hope and healing. Robinson’s characters are unremittingly human, stumbling along in the dark, until at some point they stumble into one another, finding themselves, despite social expectations to the contrary. Jack Boughton, for example.

In the second novel of the Gilead series, Jack is the favored son who runs away from home, abandoning his infant and its mother. The shamefulness of his running away – it is the 1950’s, after all—leads to his father’s loss of his employment, church, and reputation. Jack doesn’t do so well with his guilty feelings and removed from the unconditional love of his family. In the fourth novel of the Gilead series, Jack, the central and title character, is unemployed, sometimes homeless, and often drunk, full of self-loathing. Until he meets Della Miles, a schoolteacher, a black woman, whose own father is an African Methodist Episcopalian bishop in Memphis. Despite their care and concern for each other, conversations about poets, and the cautious two-steps-back-and-three-steps-forward dance of Della and Jack falling in love that Robinson describes so truthfully….well, mid-20th century attitudes toward race, social class, and gender roles, may be insurmountable. I can’t tell just yet what happens—because I’m only halfway into the novel.

And. It’s good. Especially when I allow myself to be absorbed into the unfolding of the story. Robinson’s narratives aren’t ordered chronologically; instead, they bend and fold back then open again so that a reader’s perceptions of Robinson’s characters change, growing in empathy. Reading Robinson’s novels is an exercise in trust, in trusting the narrative, and in paying attention. It’s not necessary to read them in order; and any one of the novels can be read enjoyably and memorably on its own. That said, having read them as they’ve been published, over a period of twenty years, I do find myself wanting to read through them all again, through this summer, to revel in the world and wisdom of Robinson’s novels and see us, we humans, embedded in our failings, flailings and families . Maybe I’ll see you there?

For HPPR Radio Readers Summer Reading Project, I’m Jane Holwerda from Dodge City, Kansas.

What are you reading this summer?

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Summer Read 2022: Summer Reading List 2022 Summer ReadHPPR Radio Readers Book Club
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