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Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Jack by Marilynne Robinson

Jack by Marilynn Robinson
Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux ISBN 9780374279301
Hardcover, $27, 320 pages

One of the few reasons I don't mind the end of summer and the move into fall is that publishers tend to release so many great books in the fall season. This year, many book publication dates were moved from the spring and summer to the fall due to COVID-19, so there seem to be an abundance of great books. In the upcoming posts, I'll cover a few of the great ones I read.

Years ago, I fell in love with Marilynne Robinson's Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Gilead. Told in the voice of an older minister in 1950's Iowa, John Ames writes to his very young son, telling him his life story and sharing his beliefs. Her second novel set in the small town, Home, is a retelling of the prodigal son parable with John Ames' godson, Jack Boughton, (son of Ames' best friend, Reverend Robert Boughton) having returned home after twenty years, now an alcoholic petty thief who spent time in prison.

Robinson returns to this story in Jack, where we go back to the time that Jack spent away from his family. After being released from prison, Jack ends up in St. Louis, where he meets a young Black schoolteacher, Miss Della Miles. He helps Della pick up papers she dropped in the rain, and walks her home. She  mistakes him for a reverend by his dress and manner and invites him into her home for tea. 

Jack is entranced by Della, but knows that nothing can come of this, he is not worthy of this fine woman, not to mention that the differences in their races makes a further relationship possible. After he finds her accidentally locked in a cemetery (where he has been sleeping as he is homeless and jobless), they spend the evening together talking and opening up to each other. 

Much of the novel is taken up with this evening. They share a love of poetry, both have fathers who are ministers, and both are outsiders in society. Jack fights this feeling of falling in love, but Della finds herself more willing to give in to her growing feelings for this complicated, flawed man no matter the cost to her.

After parting in the morning, Jack decides that he will try to become worthy of the man that Della believes him to be. He gets a job in a shoe store, then as a dance instructor, but the hardest obstacle for him to overcome is his alcoholism.  

Robinson writes the interior life of characters so insightfully. We thoroughly see Jack, even when he can't see himself clearly. Every time the lure of alchohol calls to him, we want to reach through the page and beg him not to drink. We want him to be the better man that Della believes him to be. Jack explains himself in this passage:
"I have not actually chosen this life. The path of least resistance is not a choice, in the usual sense of the word. I know it appears to be one. But when the resistance you encounter on every other path seems, you know, indomitable, then there you are. I'm sure I have been too easily discouraged."

In 1950s St. Louis, a interracial relationships are forbidden. Della's roommate reminds her of everything she could lose- her job as a teacher, the respect and love of her family in Memphis, even her freedom- if she persues a relationship with this man. Although set seventy years ago, the race issue is relevant today.

Jack is a quiet book, like all of Robinson's books. We spend most of the book inside the head of Jack, a complicated character who may remind us of someone in our own lives. The writing, as always from Robinson, is exquisite. Reading Jack will make you more compassionate towards others, a good thing in this increasingly contentious age of only engaging on divisive social media. I will be rereading Home now with a fresh eye to what happened to Jack while he was gone.  I know I will never forget him or Della. I give Jack my highest possible recommendation.

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