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When I was a child,” Marilynne Robinson began an early essay, “I read books.” Lila Ames, the eponymous protagonist of Robinson’s most recent novel, did not. If not for a single year of schooling, she might have never learned to read at all. When she wanders, at age thirty, into Gilead, she is ashamed of the clumsy childishness of her own penmanship. 

To readers of Gilead and Home, the earlier of Robinson’s works focusing on the small Iowa town, Lila will be familiar as the much-younger wife of John Ames, the town’s Congregationalist minister (and the narrator of Gilead). Her husband depicts her, nearing forty, as a voracious reader of westerns and romances. That she is uneducated seems rooted primarily in a comparison with his own preference for Feuerbach, Barth, and Donne.

Lila is very much the story of her baptism, perhaps even her conversion, and her struggle both with and against the possibility that she is among the elect. Her encounter with Christianity is as much an encounter with the pages of the Bible as it is with her husband-to-be; when she opens the book—for her, it seems, the book as well as the Book—she discovers the existence of its words for the first time. Wandering washed but barely lettered out of the wilderness, she is as close a figure to those the first Church missionaries to Europe found as I suspect American literature will ever see, or is capable of seeing.

She comes to the Bible, that is, with no knowledge of its contents or its contexts. Using the copy she has lifted from Ames’s church to practice her handwriting, she copies the beginning of Genesis ten times and wonders, “Waste and void. Darkness on the face of the deep. She would like to ask him about that. She wrote it all again, ten times.” Of Ezekiel 16 she remarks, “First time I ever heard of salting a baby.”

Her daily practice reveals the potential power of reading as well as religion. Perhaps even more so. She is drawn to the fantastic imagery of the lines she copies, sensing that perhaps “the wildest, strangest things in the Bible were the places where it touches the earth.” Copying word-by-word and line-by-line, she begins to puzzle over meaning apace. As she does so, the language of the book begins to seep into and inform the way in which she considers the world. Take, for example:

She wrote, And I looked, and, behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, a great cloud, with a fire infolding itself, and a brightness round about it, and out of the midst thereof as it were glowing metal, out of the midst of the fire. Well, that could have been a prairie fire in a drought year. She had never seen one, but she had heard stories. And out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance: they had the likeness of a man. And every one had four faces, and every one of them had four wings.

Well, she didn’t know what to make of that. A dream somebody had, and he wrote it down, and it ended up in this book. She copied it ten times, still trying to make her letter smaller and neater. Lila Dahl, Lila Dahl, Lila Dahl. She had four letters in each of her names, and he had four letters in each of his. She had a silent h in her last name and he had one in his first. There were graves in Gilead with his name written out on them, and there was no one anywhere alive or dead with her name, since the first one belonged to the sister she never saw of a woman she barely remembered and the second one was just a mistake.

Her name had the likeness of a name. She had the likeness of a woman, with hands but no face at all, since she never let herself see it. She had the likeness of a life, because she was all alone in it. She lived in the likeness of a house, with walls and a roof and a door that kept nothing in and nothing out. And when Doll took her up and swept her away, she had felt a likeness of wings. She thought, Strange as all this is, there might be something to it.

Precisely that portion of Ezekiel which she cannot immediately imagine for herself—it cannot be consigned to something like a prairie fire—is that which breaks into her consciousness and offers her new ways to apprehend her loneliness—and to apprehend both the absurdity and undeniability of her felt connection to John Ames. Her name, her body, and the shack she lives in blur into the unreality of dreams—but an unreality different than that of her initial impulse toward “a dream somebody had, and wrote it down, and it ended up in this book,” because her name, her body, and her shack all do exist.

At this moment, she does not come to knowledge by the apprehension of any eternal truth. She knows little of God or Israel, commandment or salvation. She has seen a baptism before, and is skilled at taking Jesus’s name in vain. That’s about it. Copying this passage from Ezekiel does not offer her religious knowledge—only the knowledge of metaphor, of an apprehension that can somehow extend beyond the perceptions of her senses. This is knowledge born of reading, the kind the Robinson describes in “When I Was a Child.”

Lila’s conversion to Christianity is at best fraught and uncertain, likely incomplete. Her conversion toward reading changes her more permanently. She was already able to ask, “I just been wondering lately why things happen the way they do.” The reader’s knowledge, though, opens her to the depth of sorrow, joy, and wonder that question can contain. As Lila sits copying, Robinson graces us with a vision of the moment when humanism opens our selves to us, and makes us more human.

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