A new novel by Marilynne Robinson is always a cause for celebration, but the release of this novel is extra special because we finally get to learn more about Jack Boughton, son of Boughton, the Presbyterian minister who is close friends with John Ames, narrator of Gilead. Jack is also the brother of Glory, the main character of the second Gilead book, Home. In those novels, Jack is a source of great concern and frustration of the characters. He’s something of a black sheep who left home years ago, and his return to Gilead causes no small amount of consternation.
In Jack, we get to see something of Jack’s life outside Gilead. From the earlier novels, we know that he is married to a Black woman, and her family’s disapproval, together with the miscegenation laws of the time, has kept them apart. In this book, we get to see how they got together in the first place.
When Jack first meets Della, he’s just gotten out of prison and is wandering the streets of St. Louis. She’s a schoolteacher and obviously too good for him. But when she drops a bunch of papers in the streets and he scrambles to pick them up for her, they become forever entangled. (Yes, it’s a romantic comedy meet cute.) An all-night talk while walking around a sprawling cemetery seals their bond.
Of course, in the 1950s, a relationship between a white ex-con and thief and a Black schoolteacher would be pretty close to an impossible relationship, on a number of levels. The problem of their different races is always there, but, for Jack, the real problem is that he just cannot see his own goodness. He’s been mired in a life of petty theft and general dissolution for years, and as far as he’s concerned, that’s who he is. And his Calvinist background no doubt enters into it, as he’s clearly haunted by what he learned of predestination from his father.
Della doesn’t know the details of Jack’s background, but she also doesn’t seem overly concerned about it. She can see he’s struggling in the here and now, and she wants him to do better, but she also loves and accepts him as he is and seems to rest in the belief that he is a decent man at heart. Interestingly, she is the daughter of a Methodist minister, and Methodism offers more room for humanity’s response to God than the Boughton family’s Calvinism. This is a huge oversimplification, of course, but knowing Robinson’s interest in theology, the choice of denomination had to be a deliberate choice. She is a Calvinist herself, so I don’t think she’s meaning to make Calvinism out to be a bad thing, but she’s also probably fully aware of how Calvinist ideas can go wrong, as they seem to for Jack.
The book recounts their falling in love and trying to decide what to do about it. Although the external forces that will eventually push them apart are there, most of the conflict is internal, as Jack seeks to become the sort of man who deserves a woman like Della. And Della just loves the man that he is. As is typical with Robinson, it is a book about grace.