Jack: A Novel
- By Marilynne Robinson
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
- 320 pp.
- Reviewed by Ellen Prentiss Campbell
- September 30, 2020
Whether or not you’ve read Gilead, the author’s latest work is a balm for the soul.
Reading Jack at this turbulent moment in national and world events, particularly this juncture in the continuing struggle for racial equity and justice, is like taking a deep drink of cool water; pausing to consider the challenge of making personal choices informed by ethical, moral, religious, and spiritual values.
Does this sound serious? It is, and in the best way, informed by the author’s vision and compassion. This novel, like all Marilynne Robinson’s fiction, takes readers into her characters’ lives — in this case, an interracial couple in St. Louis in the mid-1940s, when such relationships were illegal — and enlarges our understanding. Robinson’s protagonists, Jack and Della, must discern when to bear and how to push against the weight of law, community, and family expectations, obligations, and prejudice.
Jack is the fourth book in Robinson’s prize-winning Gilead cycle. Readers of the prior novels (Gilead, Home, and Lila) will remember charming, ne’er-do-well Jack, from Gilead, Iowa, the son of a Presbyterian minister. These readers will also recall his father’s bigotry.
Though not a prequel, this book explores a critical time in Jack’s life which previously occurred offstage: meeting and falling in love with Della, a Black schoolteacher from Memphis and daughter of an A.M.E. bishop. With Jack as the point-of-view character, the novel follows the couple’s struggle with the potential consequences of their relationship — sacred and transformative in their eyes, illegal and dangerous and wrong (or, at best, disappointing) in the eyes of their families.
Robinson has said that plot is “not a word I use…some people think it’s not a concept I have.” Rather, it is character and voice that drive her novels. Here, Jack and Della’s voices, their challenging circumstances, risk-laden choices, and passionate engagement with right and wrong, possible and impossible, create compelling, authentic drama.
Through Jack’s constant internal monologue and arguments with himself and imagined, estranged family members, as well as his conversations with Della, this powerful story unrolls. Indeed, the first 80 pages of the book are an extended dialogue between Jack and Della over the course of an entire night spent in the Bellefontaine Cemetery.
They had met by chance some weeks earlier when Della’s school papers scattered on the street in a gust of wind. Jack retrieved them. Unemployed, alcoholic, and not long out of jail, he was wearing his one black suit. Della thought he was a minister. Attracted to each other, they shared one risky meal in a restaurant that served both “white and colored” (but not usually as tablemates) and have not seen each other since.
Penniless, Jack often sleeps in the cemetery. Della comes alone that evening to wander and is locked in by accident at closing time. They encounter each other and hide from the cemetery guard among the shadows. The couple talks all night about poetry, about language and meaning (like the difference between beautify and beatify), about scripture, dogma, prayer, and God (she believes, he is an atheist).
They talk of the doctrinal differences between Methodists and Presbyterians, and the burden of being a preacher’s child. They talk about predestination and choice. It is deep but also funny at times. Robinson’s prose, as has been true since her first novel, Housekeeping, is clear, beautiful, and almost poetry.
Though they barely dare to touch, the power of their attraction is palpable throughout the long dark night’s conversation and the rest of the book. From the first, Jack is aware of his potential to harm and damage Della — but more, he thinks, because of who he is as a very flawed man than because of who they are as an interracial couple.
He believes he has caused damage ever since his breech birth almost killed his mother. Jack tells Della, “I ruin things. It’s a little different every time. I actually surprise myself. Except that it’s inevitable. That’s always the same, I suppose. One thing I can count on.” And he fears that inevitable outcome with her.
He warns that he is “The Prince of Darkness,” not really joking. Della disregards his presentation of himself, sees the best in him, and defies the personal danger — much graver for her — of breaking the law. She is, however, worried by the disappointment she will cause her family, her community, and her home church by loving Jack and abandoning her hard-won professional success.
To come north and teach has been her lifelong ambition. She carries the weight of her community’s aspirations and, especially, her father’s expectations. Jack is painfully aware of squandering his birthright opportunities, throwing away family and education. Della knows that her family and church will believe she’s wasted everything she’s worked for and betrayed them.
Still, neither can resist the high-stakes relationship. Both believe, at least at times, that their love is worth the risk and should transcend law and obligation. Loving Della, Jack tries to redeem and recreate himself — finding a job, trying to stay sober. Loving Jack, Della defies her family.
The reader fears and hopes for both of them right up to the outcome on the last page and may — whether familiar with the series or meeting Jack for the first time — want to return to Gilead, Home, and Lila rather than say goodbye.
Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s new collection of love stories is Known By Heart. Her story collection Contents Under Pressure was nominated for the National Book Award, and her debut novel, The Bowl with Gold Seams, won the Indy Excellence Award for Historical Fiction. Her novel Frieda’s Song is forthcoming in spring 2021. Her column, “Girl Writing,” appears in the Independent bi-monthly. For many years, Campbell practiced psychotherapy. She lives in Washington, DC, and is at work on another novel.