Lila is a wild child. Not wholly, but in some important ways. The people supposedly taking care of her have put her out of the house, and the cats have scratched her because she sometimes picks them up by their tails. The house's inhabitants, we're told, would "fight themselves to sleep." The child is 4 or 5, long-legged, underfed. She is scooped up by a woman with a scarred face named Doll, who keeps her safe, and fed and alive in a hand-to-mouth existence dependent largely on migratory farm labor. The child, Lila, has no knowledge of any member of her family until, years later, Doll apparently kills one with her prophetically sharpened knife. Lila has no last name. The loneliness, the oddness, the separateness of this kind of life seems impossible to imagine, but that's exactly what novelist Marilynne Robinson does in this novel, the third of her books set in a tiny Iowa town called Gilead. It's just a great piece of writing.
Lila follows Doll's advice: keep to yourself, don't trust nobody; churches just want your money. Even later in life when -- to her own enormous surprise -- she is about to marry a considerably older minister in Gilead, she counsels herself, "I've got to keep away from people."
Despite her stranger's exile from civilized life, Lila is a sensitive soul with a poetic appreciation of days spent in wild fields and meadows, camping besides streams to drink from and wash in. In town, she cries at movies and thinks about the stories she's seen on the screen all week. When she loses Doll, after the latter's disastrous knife fight, and lands in a St. Louis whorehouse, she falls in love with the only young man around, but he's exactly the type to play with and mar the innocence of someone whose slight experience has not built up any of the most basic defenses. His mere presence in the same part of town causes her to give up a room-and-board cleaning job in a hotel and accept a stranger's ride to just anywhere. She ends up on a country road in Iowa, inhaling a beauty familiar from her wandering days and looking for dandelions, nettles, berries, roots, fish in a stream. One thing she knows how to do is keep herself alive in a fertile country in growing season. She finds an abandoned cabin to sleep in.
But to the minister whose church she walks into to get out of the rain -- whom she thinks of as "a beautiful old man," white-haired, gentle and congenitally well-meaning -- she is simply a gift from God. We learn much more about him, the Reverend Ames, and his soulful wrestling with the problem of existence in Robinson's first book on this part of the world, the Pulitzer Prize winning Gilead. A widower who lost his wife in childbirth when both were young, here he wrestles with an unexpected late-in-life blessing. Lila sometimes sees herself as a chess piece in a game of doubt and revelation played by Ames and his God; and she sometimes concludes that the best move for her is out the door, but she never makes it. Ames candidly admits he can't answer any of Lila's real questions about life: "Why are things the way they are?" But he wants the opportunity to keep trying.
As they try to learn how to talk to one another, Lila, who knows how to read and write but has seldom had the opptorunity to read anything -- no room for books in a life where you seldom own much more than the clothes on your back -- has taken to copying out passages from the Biblical book of Ezekiel. Ames can't always explain these visionary passages either, some of which sound to her like the prophecy of her own life. But together they try to work out some understanding of the afterlife -- the Christian belief in Resurrection, the miracle of the grace of God, the meaning or value of a life that is bound to disappear. Meanwhile a child moves in Lila's womb and the snows of the Midwestern winter reduce life to bare essentials.
There are passages in this book, almost every other page or so, I wish I could remember, or "keep" in my mind in some way, but of course I won't be able to. Nevertheless here are a few sentences, chosen almost at random near the end of the book when Lila is once again trying to make sense of life. (Trying to make sense of life is what Lila does):
"Can a soul in bliss feel a weight lift off his heart?... So it couldn't matter much how life seemed. The old man always said we should attend to the things we have some hope of understanding, and eternity isn't one of them. Well, this world isn't one either. Most of the time she thought she understood things better when she didn't try. Things happen the way they do..." And in eternity, Lila decides, "any scoundrel could be pulled into heaven just to make his mother happy."
She has worked her way to the doctrine of "Universalism," not a term she has ever encountered: Everyone is saved. In my own view that's also the best way to answer the question "why are things the way they are."
Through the device of a character who faces life without most of the ordinary comforts and the kinds of security most of us enjoy (such as a home, a family), Marilynne Robinson finds a way to show us the beating heart of this life of ours.