"Home to stay, Glory! Yes!" her father said, and her heart sank. He
attempted a twinkle of joy at this thought, but his eyes were damp with
commiseration. "To stay for a while this time!" he amended, and took her
bag from her, first shifting his cane to his weaker hand. Dear God, she
thought, dear God in heaven. So began and ended all her prayers these
days, which were really cries of amazement. How could her father be so
frail? And how could he be so recklessly intent on satisfying his
notions of gentlemanliness, hanging his cane on the railing of the
stairs so he could, dear God, carry her bag up to her room? But he did
it, and then he stood by the door, collecting himself.
"This is the nicest room. According to Mrs. Blank." He indicated the
windows. "Cross ventilation. I don’t know. They all seem nice to
me." He laughed. "Well, it’s a good house." The house embodied for
him the general blessedness of his life, which was manifest, really
indisputable. And which he never failed to acknowledge, especially when
it stood over against particular sorrow. Even more frequently after
their mother died he spoke of the house as if it were an old wife,
beautiful for every comfort it had offered, every grace, through all the
long years. It was a beauty that would not be apparent to every eye. It
was too tall for the neighborhood, with a flat face and a flattened roof
and peaked brows over the windows. "Italianate," her father said, but
that was a guess, or a rationalization. In any case, it managed to look
both austere and pretentious despite the porch her father had had built
on the front of it to accommodate the local taste for socializing in the
hot summer evenings, and which had become overgrown by an immense
bramble of trumpet vines. It was a good house, her father said, meaning
that it had a gracious heart however awkward its appearance. And now the
gardens and the shrubbery were disheveled, as he must have known, though
he rarely ventured beyond the porch.
Not that they had been especially presentable even while the house was
in its prime. Hide-and-seek had seen to that, and croquet and badminton
and baseball. "Such times you had!" her father said, as if the present
slight desolation were confetti and candy wrappers left after the
passing of some glorious parade. And there was the oak tree in front of
the house, much older than the neighborhood or the town, which made
rubble of the pavement at its foot and flung its imponderable branches
out over the road and across the yard, branches whose girths were
greater than the trunk of any ordinary tree. There was a torsion in its
body that made it look like a giant dervish to them. Their father said
if they could see as God can, in geological time, they would see it leap
out of the ground and turn in the sun and spread its arms and bask in
the joys of being an oak tree in Iowa. There had once been four swings
suspended from those branches, announcing to the world the fruitfulness
of their household. The oak tree flourished still, and of course there
had been and there were the apple and cherry and apricot trees, the
lilacs and trumpet vines and the day lilies. A few of her mother’s
irises managed to bloom. At Easter she and her sisters could still bring
in armfuls of flowers, and their father’s eyes would glitter with
tears and he would say, "Ah yes, yes," as if they had brought some
memento, these flowers only a pleasant reminder of flowers.
Why should this staunch and upright house seem to her so abandoned? So
heartbroken? The eye of the beholder, she thought. Still, seven of her
father’s children came home as often as they could manage to, and
telephoned, and sent notes and gifts and crates of grapefruit. Their own
children, from the time they could grasp a crayon and scrawl, were
taught to remember Grandpa, then Great-grandpa. Parishioners and their
children and grandchildren looked in on her father with a faithfulness
that would have taxed his strength if the new minister had not hinted at
the problem. And there was Ames, her father’s alter ego, in whom
he had confided so long and so utterly that he was a second father to
them all, not least in the fact of knowing more about them than was
entirely consistent with their comfort. Sometimes they made their father
promise not to tell anyone, by which he knew they meant Reverend Ames,
since he was far too discreet to repeat any confidence, except in the
confessional of Ames’s stark bachelor kitchen, where, they
suspected, such considerations were forgotten. And what was their father
not to tell? How they informed on Jack, telling him what Jack had said,
what Jack had done or seemed inclined to do.
"I have to know," their father said. "For his sake." So they told on
their poor scoundrel brother, who knew it, and was irritated and darkly
amused, and who kept them informed or misinformed and inspired urgent
suspicions among them which they felt they had to pass on, whatever
their misgivings, to spare their father having to deal with the sheriff
again. They were not the kind of children to carry tales. They observed
a strict code against it among themselves, in fact, and they made an
exception of Jack only because they were afraid to do otherwise. "Will
they put him in jail?" they asked one another miserably when the
mayor’s son found his hunting rifle in their barn. If they had
only known, they could have returned it and spared their father surprise
and humiliation. At least with a little warning he could have composed
himself, persuaded himself to feel something less provocative than pure
But no, they did not put him in jail. Jack, standing beside his father,
made yet another apology and agreed to sweep the steps of the city hall
every morning for a week. And he did leave the house early every
morning. Leaves and maple wings accumulated at city hall until the week
was over and the mayor swept them up. No. His father would always
intercede for him. The fact that his father was his father usually made
intercession unnecessary. And that boy could apologize as fluently as
any of the rest of the Boughtons could say the Apostles’ Creed.
A decade of betrayals, minor and major, was made worse by awareness on
every side that they were all constantly alert to transgression and its
near occasion, and made worse still by the fact that Jack never repaid
them in kind, though this may only have been because their own mischief
was too minor to interest him. To say they shared a bad conscience about
Jack to this day would be to overstate the matter a little. No doubt he
had his own reasons for staying away all these years, refusing all
contact with them. Assuming, please God, he was alive. It was easy to
imagine in retrospect that Jack might have tired of it all, even though
they knew he made a somber game of it. Sometimes he had seemed to wish
he could simply trust a brother, a sister. They remembered that from
time to time he had been almost candid, had spoken almost earnestly.
Then he would laugh, but that might have been embarrassment.
They were attentive to their father all those years later, in part
because they were mindful of his sorrow. And they were very kind to one
another, and jovial, and fond of recalling good times and looking
through old photographs so that their father would laugh and say, "Yes,
yes, you were quite a handful." All this might have been truer because
of bad conscience, or, if not that, of a grief that felt like guilt. Her
good, kind, and jovial siblings were good, kind, and jovial consciously
and visibly. Even as children they had been good in fact, but also in
order to be seen as good. There was something disturbingly like
hypocrisy about it all, though it was meant only to compensate for Jack,
who was so conspicuously not good as to cast a shadow over their
household. They were as happy as their father could wish, even happier.
Such gaiety! And their father laughed at it all, danced with them to the
Victrola, sang with them around the piano. Such a wonderful family they
were! And Jack, if he was there at all, looked on and smiled and took no
part in any of it.
Now, as adults, they were so careful to gather for holidays that Glory
had not seen the house empty and quiet in years, since she was a girl.
Even when the others had all gone off to school her mother was there,
and her father was still vigorous enough to make a little noise in the
house with coming and going, singing, grumbling. "I don’t know why
he has to slam that door!" her mother would say, when he was off to tend
to some pastoral business or to play checkers with Ames. He almost
skipped down the steps. The matter of Jack and the girl and her baby
stunned him, winded him, but he was still fairly robust, full of
purpose. Then, after his frailty finally overwhelmed him, and after
their mother died, there was still the throng of family, the bantering
and bickering child cousins who distracted and disrupted adult
conversation often enough to ward off inquiry into the specifics of her
own situation. Still teaching, still engaged to be married, yes, long
engagements are best. Twice the fiancé had actually come home with
her, had shaken hands all around and smiled under their tactful
scrutiny. He had been in their house. He could stay only briefly, but he
had met her father, who claimed to like him well enough, and this had
eased suspicions a little. Theirs and hers. Now here she was alone with
poor old Papa, sad old Papa, upon whose shoulder much of Presbyterian
Gilead above the age of twenty had at some time wept. No need to say
anything, and no hope of concealing anything either.
The town seemed different to her, now that she had returned there to
live. She was thoroughly used to Gilead as the subject and scene of
nostalgic memory. How all the brothers and sisters except
Jack had loved to come home, and how ready they always were to leave
again. How dear the old place and the old stories were to them, and how
far abroad they had scattered. The past was a very fine thing, in its
place. But her returning now, to stay, as her father said, had turned
memory portentous. To have it overrun its bounds this way and become
present and possibly future, too—they all knew this was a thing to
be regretted. She rankled at the thought of their commiseration.
Most families had long since torn down their outbuildings and sold off
their pastures. Smaller houses in later styles had sprung up between
them in sufficient numbers to make the old houses look increasingly out
of place. The houses of Gilead had once stood on small farmsteads with
garden patches and berry patches and henhouses, with woodsheds, rabbit
hutches, and barns for the cow or two, the horse or two. These were
simply the things life required. It was the automobile that changed
that, her father said. People didn’t have to provide for
themselves the way they once did. It was a loss—there was nothing
like chicken droppings to make flowers thrive.
Boughtons, who kept everything, had kept their land, their empty barn,
their useless woodshed, their unpruned orchard and horseless pasture.
There on the immutable terrain of their childhood her brothers and
sisters could and did remember those years in great detail, their own
memories, but more often the pooled memory they saw no special need to
portion out among them. They looked at photographs and went over the old
times and laughed, and their father was well pleased.
Boughton property lay behind the house in a broad strip that spanned two
blocks, now that the town had grown and spread enough to have blocks.
For years a neighbor—they still called him Mr. Trotsky because
Luke, home from college, had called him that—planted alfalfa on
half of it, and her father sometimes tried to find words for his
irritation about this. "If he would just ask me," he said. She was too
young at the time to understand the alfalfa putsch, and she was in
college when she began to see what R the old stories meant, that they
were really the stirring and smoldering of old fires that had burned
furiously elsewhere. It pleased her to think that Gilead was part of the
world she read about, and she wished she had known Mr. Trotsky and his
wife, but old as they were, they had abandoned Gilead to its folly in a
fit of indignation about which no one knew the particulars, just at the
end of her sophomore year.
The land that was the battlefield would have been unused if the neighbor
had not farmed it, and alfalfa was good for the soil, and the joke and
perhaps the fact was that the neighbor, who seemed otherwise unemployed
and who railed against the cash nexus, donated his crop to a rural
cousin, who in exchange donated to him a certain amount of money. In any
case, her father could never finally persuade himself that objection was
called for. The neighbor was also an agnostic and probably spoiling for
an ethical argument. Her father seemed to feel he could not risk losing
another one of those, after the embarrassing episode when he tried to
prevent the town from putting a road through his land, on no better
grounds than that his father would have opposed it, and his grandfather.
He had realized this during a long night when his belief in the
rightness of his position dissipated like mist, under no real scrutiny.
There was simply the moment, a little after 10:00 p.m., when the
realization came, and then the seven hours until dawn. His case looked
no better by daylight, so he wrote a letter to the mayor, simple and
dignified, making no allusion to the phrase "grasping hypocrite," which
he had thought he heard the mayor mutter after him as he walked away
from a conversation he had considered pleasant enough. He told all of
them about this at the dinner table and used it more than once as a
sermon illustration, since he did devoutly believe that when the Lord
gave him moral instruction it was not for his use only.
Each spring the agnostic neighbor sat his borrowed tractor with the
straight back and high shoulders of a man ready to be challenged.
Unsociable as he was, he called out heartily to passersby like a man
with nothing to hide, intending, perhaps, to make the Reverend Boughton
know, and know the town at large knew, too, that he was engaged in
trespass. This is the very act against which Christians leveraged the
fate of their own souls, since they were, if they listened to their own
prayers, obliged to forgive those who trespassed against them.
Her father lived in a visible state of irritation until the crop was in,
but he was willing to concede the point. He knew the neighbor was
holding him up to public embarrassment year after year, seed time and
harvest, not only to keep fresh the memory of his ill-considered
opposition to the road, but also to be avenged in some small degree for
the whole, in his agnostic view unbroken, history of religious
Once, five of the six younger Boughtons—Jack was elsewhere—
played a joyless and determined game of fox and geese in the tender crop
of alfalfa, the beautiful alfalfa, so green it was almost blue, so
succulent that a mist stood on its tiny leaves even in the middle of the
day. They were not conscious of the craving for retaliation until Dan
ran out into the field to retrieve a baseball, and Teddy ran after him,
and Hope and Gracie and Glory after them. Somebody shouted fox and
geese, and they all ran around to make the great circle, and then to
make the diameters, breathless, the clover breaking so sweetly under
their feet that they repented of the harm they were doing even as they
persisted in it. They slid and fell in the vegetable mire and stained
their knees and their hands, until the satisfactions of revenge were
outweighed in their hearts by the knowledge that they were deeply in
trouble. They played on until they were called to supper. When they
trooped into the kitchen in a reek of child sweat and bruised alfalfa,
their mother made a sharp sound in her throat and called, "Robert, look
what we have here." The slight satisfaction in their father’s face
confirmed what they dreaded, that he saw the opportunity to demonstrate
Christian humility in such an unambiguous form that the neighbor could
feel it only as rebuke.
He said, "Of course you will have to apologize." He looked almost stern,
only a little amused, only a little gratified. "You had better get it
over with," he said. As they knew, an apology freely offered would have
much more effect than one that might seem coerced by the offended party,
and since the neighbor was a short-tempered man, the balance of relative
righteousness could easily tip against them. So the five of them walked
by way of the roads to the other side of the block. Somewhere along the
way Jack caught up and walked along with them, as if penance must always
They knocked at the door of the small brown house and the wife opened
it. She seemed happy enough to see them, and not at all surprised. She
asked them in, mentioning with a kind of regret the smell of cooking
cabbage. The house was sparsely furnished and crowded with books,
magazines, and pamphlets, the arrangements having a provisional feeling
though the couple had lived there for years. There were pictures pinned
to the walls of bearded, unsmiling men and women with rumpled hair and
Teddy said, "We’re here to apologize."
She nodded. "You trampled the field. I know that. He knows, too.
I’ll tell him you have come." She spoke up the stairs, perhaps in
a foreign language, listened for a minute to nothing audible, and came
back to them. "To destroy is a great shame," she said.
"To destroy for no reason." Teddy said, "That is our field. I mean, my
father does own it."
"Poor child!" she said. "You know no better than this, to speak of
owning land when no use is made of it. Owning land just to keep it from
others. That is all you learn from your father the priest! Mine, mine,
mine! While he earns his money from the ignorance of the people!" She
waved a slender arm and a small fist. "Telling his foolish lies again
and again while everywhere the poor suffer!"
They had never heard anyone speak this way before, certainly not to them
or about them. She stared at them to drive her point home. There was
convincing rage and righteousness in her eyes, watery blue as they were,
and Jack laughed.
"Oh yes," she said, "I know who you are. The boy thief, the boy
drunkard! While your father tells the people how to live! He deserves
you!" Then, "Why so quiet? You have never heard the truth before?"
Daniel, the oldest of them, said, "You shouldn’t talk that way. If
you were a man, I’d probably have to hit you."
"Hah! Yes, you good Christians, you come into my house to threaten
violence! I will report you to the sheriff. There is a little justice,
even in America!" She waved her fist again.
Jack laughed. He said, "It’s all right. Let’s go home." And
she said, "Yes, listen to your brother. He knows about the sheriff!"
So they trooped out the door, which was slammed after them, and filed
home in the evening light absorbing what they had heard. They agreed
that the woman was crazy and her husband, too. Still, vengefulness
stirred in them, and there was talk of breaking windows, letting air out
of tires. Digging a pit so large and well concealed that the neighbor
and his tractor would both fall in. And there would be spiders at the
bottom, and snakes. And when he yelled for help they would lower a
ladder with the rungs sawed through so that they would break under his
weight. Ah, the terrible glee among the younger ones, while the older
ones absorbed the fact that they had heard their family insulted and had
done nothing about it.
They walked into their own kitchen, and there were their mother and
father, waiting to hear their report. They told them that they
didn’t speak to the man, but the woman had yelled at them and had
called their father a priest.
"Well," their mother said, "I hope you were polite."
They shrugged and looked at each other. Gracie said, "We just sort of
Jack said, "She was really mean. She even said you deserved me."
Her father’s eyes stung. He said, "Did she say that? Well now,
that was kind of her. I will be sure to thank her. I hope I do deserve
you, Jack. All of you, of course." That tireless tenderness of his, and
Jack’s unreadable quiet in the face of it.
Mr. Trotsky planted potatoes and squash the next year, corn the year
after that. A nephew of the rural cousin came to help him with his crop,
and in time was given the use of the field and built a small house on
one corner of it and brought a wife there, and they had children. More
beds of marigolds, another flapping clothesline, another roof pitched
under heaven to shelter human hope and frailty. The Boughtons tacitly
ceded all claim.
Excerpted from Home by Marilynne Robinson Copyright © 2008 by
Marilynne Robinson Published in September 2008 by Farrar, Straus and
Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright
laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce
the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
Excerpted from "Home: A Novel" by Marilynne Robinson. Copyright © 2009 by Marilynne Robinson. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.