Does literature stem anxieties, soothe frayed nerves, help us escape difficult realities? As one bad news follows another, carrying on from 2016, can the world of books bring some solace? In his farewell address as U.S. President, as he tried to calm people, both at home and outside, who were anxious about the Trump presidency, Barack Obama dug deep into Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird: “If our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation, each one of us must try to heed the advice of one of the great characters in American fiction, Atticus Finch.”
Quoting Atticus, he said,
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
These are the words Atticus Finch tells his six-year-old daughter Scout when she has a difficult first day at school.
With Atticus Finch showing up flawed and racist in Go Set a Watchman, Lee’s second novel published more than 50 years after Mockingbird and set two decades later but written earlier, some would think it was clever of Obama to bring up Atticus. Was he subtly asking minorities to understand the other point of view too, just like Uncle Jack (Atticus’s brother) tells a grown-up Scout in Watchman: Atticus is a “human being with failings… it’s always easy to look back and see what we were, yesterday, ten years ago. It is hard to see what we are. If you can master that trick, you’ll get along.”
Later, in an interview to The New York Times, Obama talked about his bookshelf and said that the “act of reading” kept him going during the toughest times of his presidency. Atticus Finch apart, his mention of another Pulitzer prize-winning novelist, Marilynne Robinson, would have brought some sense of peace and hope.
In the town of Gilead
Robinson’s serene novels, primarily the three based in the fictional town of Gilead in mid-west Iowa, are all about grace, amazing grace, even as they talk about life, love, loss, joy, sadness, religion and faith.
In the opening pages of Gilead, the first in the trilogy, we find Reverend John Ames, old and terminally ill, writing a letter to his seven-year-old son. He wants to leave behind a testament of his life for his young son, drawing out truths about his life, his family, and his country’s history right from the Civil War to the civil rights movement.
Ames is in awe of Nature and as he watches his son play around him, he writes: “Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday. It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain. You can feel the silent and invisible life.”
As death becomes inevitable, he addresses his son: “I’m writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you’ve done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you’ve been God’s grace to me, a miracle… You may not remember me very well at all, and it may seem to you to be no great thing to have been a good child of an old man… If only I had the words to tell you.” Anyone reading it immediately feels a sense of joy and hope that an ordinary life can be meaningful.
In Gilead, we read about Ames’ closest friend and neighbour, Reverend Robert Boughton, and his family of eight. This includes Boughton’s wayward son and Ames’s godson, also named John Ames, but better known as Jack, who has returned to Gilead, a fact not looked without suspicion by Ames. Robinson returns to the Boughtons in the second part of her Gilead books, Home . Here, Gloria, Rev Boughton’s daughter, is back home to tend to her dying father. Her brother Jack turns up too; he who has always asked difficult questions about faith and religion to the reverend and his best friend.
Jack has a secret — like the other Boughtons — and it can threaten a family living at a time when the civil rights movement is taking root. In Gilead, Ames feels Jack looks right through him and writes: “These people who can see right through you never quite do you justice, because they never give you credit for the effort you’re making to be better than you actually are, which is difficult and well-meant and deserving of some little notice.”
In the sheltered world that we live in, what are we doing to understand someone different? Are we doing enough to rise above our petty selves and reach out? Is it possible to change a viewpoint so that we appreciate the other view? Gilead and Home ask these questions about race, religion, Whites, Blacks, freedom, exile.
In the third book, Lila, Robinson tells the story of the inhabitants of Gilead through Lila, wife of Ames, who slips into his church one Sunday to escape the rain. He’s twice her age, but there’s a connection of two lonely souls. She is worried that she will be judged by his parish, having lived as a migrant all her life, often in the throes of starvation, but Ames, who finds out he won’t live long, is thankful for this miracle. As Ames writes to his son in Gilead, “There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.”
The Sunday Magazine, 12 February 2017