Jack: A Novel

Written by Marilynne Robinson
Review by Susan Lowell

A very few novelists create worlds—palpable, mappable, 3-D, unique as a scent. Marilynne Robinson’s fictional Gilead, Iowa, is such a world, and her latest novel, Jack, extends its boundaries in more ways than one. As Archibald MacLeish said of poetry, Gilead is “equal to: not true.” Like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County or Trollope’s Barsetshire, Robinson’s town, or world, of Gilead is firmly connected to the “true” nonfictional world, upon which her fiction brilliantly, poignantly comments.

Robinson first introduced Gilead in her eponymous, award-winning novel of 2004. Since then she has won many more prizes as she developed its characters and explored their relationships from generation to generation in Home (2008), Lila (2014), and now Jack. While constructed of humble Midwestern American materials, these characters nevertheless manage to attain the grand mythological stature of poetic figures in the Bible, Shakespeare, and Milton. (And Dunbar.)

For Jack, infused with poetry and Scripture, is the story of an interracial love affair between a prodigal son and a prodigal daughter. Set in St. Louis in the postwar Forties, it traces the star-crossed romance between sweet Della Miles and wayward Jack Boughten. The son of a Presbyterian minister, Jack is a charming liar and thief, a wastrel, a “turbulent soul” who has deeply troubled his family (and himself) since the day of his birth in Gilead. Also a minister’s child, Della is an impeccable young English teacher who unaccountably falls in love with “an old white bum.” In segregated mid-century America, their odd relationship is also illegal.

As she tells their story, Marilynne Robinson progresses from microcosm to cosmos, evoking Aristotelian pity and terror, but she also makes us laugh.

Ne plus ultra! BLM! Read it!