Last night I finished Home, the second novel by Marilyn Robinson set in the Iowa town of Gilead (which is also the name of the first novel). I’ve also been reading Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry, and although I haven’t yet finished it – I’m in Part III, though, so I have a good sense of it – my continued reaction is that Robinson does the better work with the stories of Ames and Boughton than Berry does with Crow in Port William.
I’m no literary critic, and so for awhile I chalked this up to my irritation with Berry’s preachy tone at a few points, namely the chapter on Bible college and his less-than-eloquent waxing on WWII. And, to be fair, I’m sure my reaction to these soliloquies of Berry’s through the mouth of Jayber still has something to do with how I feel about the book even without comparing it to Gilead or Home. I’m also sure that it influences my emotional attachment to the characters, and the fact that I just “like” John, Robert, Jack, and Glory better than I do Jay.
But I also think that there is a tangible and critique-able difference between the two novelists, namely how they portray the relationship between grace and localism. For Robinson, grace and localism are closely connected, as it is through the local that grace is communicated. As the elder Boughton says to Jack in Home, it is through families – and, inferentially, local places and people – that God shows his grace to individuals. God communicates forgiveness, mercy, and hope tangibly. There is something sacramental about this world, not in the same sense as baptism and the Lord’s Supper, but in the sense that God uses material means to communicate his blessings to us. This is Robinson’s point through and through.
Berry, on the other hand, seems to either conflate grace and localism or, most often, to elevate the latter above the former. For Jayber, finding a place to call home is salvation. Although he later talks about his “beliefs”, this seems oddly disconnected and disembodied from his real conversion experience, his baptism in the flooded river he crossed getting to his final destination, Port William. There is no need for forgiveness, mercy, or hope, so long as there is the local.
Again, I’m not an English prof or a literary critic. So I could be completely off base. For those of you who’ve read these books, what do you think?