I am not often surprised by a book, but this book surprised me in a fascinating way and I loved it. Let me explain. Lila is a minor character from the book Gilead. Gilead was a nice book about a preacher from a small town in Iowa. Both this book, Lila and the book “Home” are books about other minor characters in Gilead. Home was about the wayward son of the preachers friend who was a retired minister and neighbor. Lila, is the story about the Preacher’s wife. I knew that going in. I was always curious about her in Gilead. We didn’t learn much about her other then she was much younger then the Preacher, and not as formally educated, and they had a child together. That left a voyeuristic curiosity to her backstory Let alone her character even in Gilead. She was always quiet, in the background, seemingly stern worried about her husband’s health.
In Lila, we learn about her upbringing and how they came to be together. And it was totally unexpected. Perhaps that says more about me and my bias towards imagining characters…That is the big question of the book. Why do things happen the way they do. The book covers deep religious topics such as grace, redemption, sin and life after death from the perspective of Lila who knew little of formal religion before meeting the Preacher John Ames. Her asking him very raw basic questions about religion and faith and God seems to light a spark in him. It also speaks about his willingness to recognize and risk love at the same time assuming it would not last.
We meet Lila as a young child as she is being kidnapped by someone, from what we are led to believe is a dangerous situation. I say we are led to believe because we really do not know and all Lila knows is what her rescuer/kidnapper Doll tells her. She lived most of her life living day to day with a group of people just trying to survive as itinerant workers . Part of why Doll joins this group is a need to stay under the radar for fear that people will be after her for taking Lila.
Through Lila’s memories, we experience her deepest interior thoughts and how she developed into the person she is. It tells about their life on the road, and what happens after the depression hits and their group of people disband. How that type of life led to a life of loneliness and fear. Yet it also spoke to the simplicity of life. One year Doll took her off there road to go to school and when asked what country she lived in she spoke of the beautiful fields and trees. Because what information do we really need to know to survive. The story highlighted the fragileness and harshness of life dependent on seasons and good will of others. There was a freeness about it, but it was also a reminder of how that kind of freedom offers limited options and support when things go bad. Being someone who has moved away from “home” and from a people who have been forced over time to move, I understand the yearning to be in a place where people have known your people for generations. It is something I will never have, but I like the feeling of it.
When your focus is on surviving day to day, you do live in the moment, do what you have to, but you have to always be on your guard and lack the ability to trust others. After the apparent death of Doll (I say apparent, because the sequence of events would lead us to believe that, but we don’t really know. Another message from the book is that we really do not know much. Anyway after Lila is alone it tells of her hard time in St. Louis. It is interesting that the book portrays St. Louis as a place where sin happens. She escapes her difficult situation. But there is also an interesting perspective of feeling security for the known, and finding happiness even in the smallest things when you are suffering even if they are an illusion. And that leads to complexity of her settling down and marrying John Ames. Imagining it is an illusion, being on guard always for something bad to happen, or fear of doing something bad that will upset others. How her experiences in the world made it hard to trust anything or anyone, even her own thoughts. Fear never leaves you when it is deep in your bones. The book offer the possibility that if we can live through the sufferings of our life, a new life can be created that offers a balm to our suffering, with the patient love of family and community.
I’m listing some quotes from the book. It is a way to keep some poignant thoughts in the forefront of my thoughts. :
“Lila “What do you ever tell people in a sermon except that thing that happen mean something? Some man dies somewhere a long time ago and that means something. People eat a bit of bread and that means something. Then why wont you say how you know that? Do you just talk that way because youre a preacher? This kind of thinking made a change in her loneliness, made it more tolerable for her. And she knew how dangerous that could be. She had told herself more than once not to call it loneliness, since it wasn tany different from one year to the next. It was just how her body felt, like hungry or tired, except it was always there, always the same”
“When folks are down to the one thing that keeps them alive, that one thing can be meanness. It makes you feel like youre there, youre doing something”
Lila “I don’t trust nobody”
Ames “No wonder you’re tired”
Lila “What isn’t strange when you think about it.”
Lila “Existence can be fierce”
Lila “To put everything else away from her, because that ache was, first and last where she came from and what waited for her.”
Lila “Im still thinking. Maybe Ill tell you when Im done”
Ames “But you might never get done, you know, Thinking is endless”
Lila “How strange it seemed to be at peace”
Lila “You’d think a man as careful as this Job might have had a storm cellar’
About going to the movies
Lila “The best part was always to sitting there in the dark, seeing what she had never seen anywhere before, and mostly believing it.”
Ames “Joy and loss exists in its own right and must be recognized for what it is. Sorrow is very real and loss feels very final to us. Life on earth is difficult and grave, and marvelous. Our experience is fragmentary. Its parts don’t add up. They don’t even belong in the same calculation. Sometimes it is hard to believe they re all parts of one thing. Nothing makes sense until we understand that experience does not acculuate like money or memory, or like years.”
Lila “Near as I can tell you were wanting to reconcile thing bys saying they cant be reconciled”
Lila “After a while it may have been my loyalty I was loyal to”
Lila “Ive been tramping around with the heathens. Theyre just as good an anybody, so far as I can see. They sure don’t deserve no hellfire”
Lila “The best things that happen I’d never have thought to pray for. In a million years. The worst things just come like the weather. You do what you can”