Jon Meacham is all over the news with his latest blockbuster biography, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush. He’s good with an interviewer and a crowd – both a scholar and an extrovert – who seems like he’s having a lot of fun. He found just the right bride 19 years ago in Keith Smythe, a Mississippi native he met when he was a freshman at Sewanee and she was a visiting high school senior considering where to go to school (to Jon’s chagrin, she chose the University of Virginia, but the two kept up through handwritten letters over seven years before finally having a first date). With mad social skills and smarts too, Keith is the rare person “who blooms absolutely in a crowd, the more social the better, and also in the kind of intense, one-on-one friendship that takes so much more depth, attention, empathy, passion, and intelligence to carry off over time,” says our mutual friend and discerning observer, Laura Cooper.
Keith has worked in the field of education since graduating from college. “I’ve been a teacher, run a charter school, and worked for the New York City Department of Education. For the past three years, I’ve been part of the founding team of a young New York start-up company called Learn with Homer. We’ve created a digital learn-to-read program for young children that actually works! It has been really hard work, but it has also been incredibly creative and fun to be a part of building something entirely new from scratch,” she says. She also serves on the boards of Valor Collegiate Academies Charter School, the Nashville Public Library, and the Tennessee Land Trust in addition to the non-stop work of parenting.
Keith and Jon spent 18 years in New York before deciding to move to Nashville in search of a gentler place to raise their three children, Sam (13), Mary (11), and Maggie (7). “It has been the best decision we ever made!” she says. Though Keith and Jon were more than ready to leave New York three years ago, any move brings with it some hesitations and concerns. When they first arrived, Keith says, “I was worried about how my children were adjusting to a new place and a new school… I was fairly eaten up with anxiety,” she admits. “My very wise friend, Hannah Lavey, gave me a great piece of advice in those first weeks: ‘Don’t interview for pain.’ It’s an idea that comes from a great parenting book called Best Friends, Worst Enemies, Understanding the Social Lives of Children, by Michael Thompson and Catherine O’Neill. What Hannah meant was not to take the very obvious anxiety that the children (and I) were feeling and hit them over the head with it the minute they got in the car in the afternoon. Give them space and let them tell you what they are experiencing, how they are solving the problem – or let them be silent. But let them drive the conversation. That doesn’t come easy for me.”
Keith’s favorite guilty pleasures include a nap on a rainy Sunday afternoon and a bacon cheeseburger (probably not on that same afternoon) – but you might also find her reading a book when she has a free moment. She has vivid memories of reading as a child: “I was lucky that my grandparents had this fantastic library filled with all the classic children’s fiction. My very favorites were the Little Women series and all the books Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote – The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, even Little Lord Fauntleroy. I remember devouring Little Women over a weekend when I was in the fourth grade, outraged by the unfairness of Amy’s burning of Jo’s manuscript and snaking Laurie, the love of her life.” Another book had a more profound effect: “It sounds silly to say that Grimm’s Fairy Tales changed my life, but they did! The Grimms tales are the first stories I remember having read aloud to me by my mother and grandmother, who seemed to relish the oddest, least-known stories – ‘The Goose Girl’ comes to mind. Anyway, those stories first taught me what pure pleasure it is to lose yourself in a story.”
These days, you’re more likely to find her reading Ann Patchett, John Updike, Philip Roth, Jonathan Franzen or Colum McCann (she’s crazy about his novel Let the Great World Spin). Her “very favorite beyond all compare is Marilynne Robinson,” whom she writes about today.
A few months ago, I was lucky enough to tag along with my biographer-husband, Jon, to the National Book Festival in Washington, DC, a weekend-long literary-palooza attended every year by thousands of book lovers. If you’ve ever worried that the hardback book is on its way to extinction, you have only to spend ten minutes watching the throngs of Festival-goers lining up to buy tickets to see their favorite authors talk.
The weekend is a little like Bonnaroo for the bookish set. There’s a stage for Fiction. Pavilions devoted to Biography and History. Mysteries in Ballroom A. A cozy Children’s Book nook in the Convention Center lobby. And there is no shortage of literary rock stars.
While I was proud of Jon’s inclusion in the Festival’s program among said literary rock stars, supporting my husband in his own book talk, I will confess, was of secondary interest. I was there primarily in my capacity as a Marilynne Robinson groupie.
Since the publication of her Pulitzer-prize winning novel Gilead in 2004, and the subsequent publication of Home and Lila, Marilynne Robinson has become something of a cult figure among fiction lovers. In recent weeks, President Obama has shined the spotlight on Robinson by inviting her to sit down with him on a stage in Iowa – her home of many years now – to share her views on the state of American democracy. The conversation, published over the past two weeks in the New York Review of Books, is well worth the read. So is her just-released collection of non-fiction, The Givenness of Things (though much more difficult to penetrate than her novels, which ultimately draw the same philosophical and theological conclusions).
Like so many of her biggest fans, I have been captivated by Marilynne Robinson’s work since the early 80s, when she published her first book, Housekeeping, a spare, beautiful novel about two orphaned sisters, Lucille and Ruthie, and their eccentric, itinerant aunt Sylvie, all of whom live a lonely, tenuous life on the fringes of a small western town. For years, I have come back again and again to the haunting pages of that book, re-reading it at least three times since my first encounter with it as a high school student. If asked why that book, more than the hundreds of other novels I have read since first opening it, enchanted me so, it would be hard to say. Yes, the writing is luminous, but nothing much happens to Ruthie, Lucille, and Sylvie. T he novel isn’t a page-turner. And yet, there is a quiet force in the book that gathers with each page.
Set in the made-up town of Fingerbone, at the edges of a far-western glacial lake over which trans-continental trains rumble on their way to points further west, Housekeeping is narrated by the adult Ruthie in a plain, matter-of-fact voice that has more in common with the tradition of Genesis than it does with modern fiction. “My name is Ruth. I grew up with my younger sister, Lucille, under the care of my grandmother, Mrs. Sylvia Foster, and when she died, of her sisters-in-law, Misses Lily and Nona Foster, and when they fled, of her daughter, Mrs. Sylvia Foster.” These genealogical facts established, Ruthie goes on, in the first chapter of the novel, to tell the story of her grandfather’s death in the trainwreck that is the only event in Fingerbone’s history to make the news. “The train,” Ruthie tells us, “which was black and sleek and elegant, and was called the Fireball, had pulled more than halfway across the bridge when the engine nosed over toward the lake and the rest of the train slid after it into the water like a weasel sliding off a rock.”
A few pages later, we learn through the same plainspoken narration that Ruthie’s mother, Helen, is buried, like her father, at the bottom of Fingerbone’s dark lake. After depositing her two young daughters and their suitcases on the screened porch of her mother’s house, which they have never visited, Helen tells her girls to “wait quietly. Then she went back to the car and drove north…where she sailed [the] Ford from the top of a cliff…into the blackest depth of the lake.”
Somewhat disappointingly at first, Ruthie never fully reveals to us the circumstances that led to Helen’s suicide. By the second chapter, though, it becomes clear that for Ruthie, the events described (sparingly) in the novel’s first pages are simply facts. She has no intention of dwelling on them. The tension of the novel has nothing to do with how Ruthie and her sister feel about the tragic events of their past, but with how they confront (very differently) the present in which they have been left to live with a wandering aunt demonstrably unfit to care for two children. How they each go about getting up in the morning, how they each keep house and seek joy in the face of their original abandonment and growing disconnection from the world is the action of the novel.
Robinson’s later books are similarly spare and tell the stories of ordinary people living ordinary lives in the face of human suffering, spiritual doubt, abandonment and isolation. But where Housekeeping concludes by affirming the essential isolation of its characters, the Gilead novels offer hope for communion. All three are set in the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa, and are narrated by characters who come from the families of two prominent pastors in town, Reverend John Ames, a Congregationalist, and Reverend Boughton, a Presbyterian. Robinson insists the novels are not sequels, but rather “companions” that offer multiple points of view the same basic story of a prodigal son returned home.
In Gilead, Reverend Ames, a man late in his life, sets out to record a family history he hopes to leave behind for his young son. Along the way, he wrestles with the disconnect between his belief in forgiveness and his struggle to forgive. Home’s narrator, Glory, is the unmarried daughter of Reverend Boughton, whose Calvinist view of life we have come to know through his friend Ames in the earlier Gilead. Glory’s account of her lonely return to Gilead and the tortured visit home of her alcoholic brother, the prodigal son, Jack, allows us to know more deeply and from a new perspective, characters introduced in the earlier novel. Lila (to me the most sublime of all Robinson’s novels) is narrated by the title character, a woman who arrives in Gilead after years of abandonment and Dustbowl deprivation to find grace (and to bestow it) in her marriage to Reverend Ames and in the life they live with their young son.
As in Housekeeping, the Gilead novels are not powered by rollicking plots and grand climaxes. Rather, the action happens below the surface, in the thoughts of the narrators as they struggle to understand themselves and one another, to forgive, to make human connections and find their way in the world. More overt in the Gilead novels than in Housekeeping is Robinson’s exploration of Christian faith and the active presence of grace in her characters’ lives, the recognition of which becomes the climax of each novel.
So how is it that Robinson’s novels, quiet as they are, have become runaway bestsellers when they do so little of what we expect bestselling fiction to do? There is no biting wit (though there is humor). Her characters do not undergo radical transformation. There are no shocking reversals of fortune or surprising twists, only plainspoken Midwestern people living out what seem to be ordinary lives.
The ordinariness and quiet of the novels, I would argue, are the source of their power. Without the noise of complicated plotlines and outsized characters, the novels leave room for the writer (and her readers) to witness the beauty of what is universal in every human being, even as it is expressed in Robinson’s very particular, very beautiful characters. It is in their most ordinary human interactions that the divine is revealed.
In her interview with President Obama, Robinson articulates the views on religion and humanity which have shaped her fiction and her understanding of how we are meant to live together in community:
I believe that people are images of God. There’s no alternative that is theologically respectable to treating people in terms of that understanding. What can I say? It seems to me as if democracy is the logical, the inevitable consequence of this kind of religious humanism at its highest level. And it [applies] to everyone. It’s the human image. It’s not any loyalty or tradition or anything else; it’s being human that enlists the respect, the love of God being implied in it.
I’ll let Ms. Robinson have the last word.