Marilynne Robinson's Small, Rich Body of Work

This sense of the importance of things permeates Housekeeping. Inanimate objects that fill their house have significance, "For even things lost in a house abide, like forgotten sorrows and incipient dreams ... like the dim coil of thick hair, saved from my grandmother's girlhood."

THE FAINT WHIFF of nihilism that exists in Housekeepingmay seem surprising to those who discovered Robinson through Gilead and Home, with their reverence for tradition. Set in Iowa, the two novels center around the families of a Congregationalist minister named John Ames and his lifelong friend, a Presbyterian minister named Robert Boughton. There is no way to make that plot description sound timely, relevant, or contemporary to avid readers of Jonathan Franzen or Zadie Smith; you'll simply have to trust an avid reader of Franzen and Smith when he tells you how Gilead and Home can draw you in. One might also trust James Wood, who wrote about Gilead (and would, I think, extend the same praise to Home) that it "achieves an almost holy simplicity."

Events in Home revolve primarily around the Reverend Boughtonand his prodigal son Jack, who has lived the life of a drifter—one wonders if he somewhere on the road his path crossed Sylvie and Ruthie's. Jack has spent time in jail and fathered a child with a black woman, the latter of which does not appall his family so much as puzzle them. The happiness stirred by his return home is mitigated by the unspoken knowledge that he cannot stay and ultimately cannot find peace in his father's religion.

Reverend Boughton is almost unique in stories about religious patriarchs in that he has virtually no ego and does not preach to his children. He is also unaware of nearly all social and political changes that have occurred since he was a boy. Like so many otherwise good men, he believes that the way things were when he was a young manare the way the world is supposed to be. The Civil Rights movement, for instance, which intrigues Jack so much, is unfathomable to him.

If Robinson werea lesser novelist, one writing to warm our hearts, she would lead us down a path through which Jack and his father could reconcile. But the final pages of Home linger in the reader's mind like an open wound of the heart.

The sister left behind to care for their father reflects on Jack and the son she didn't know he had, "She knew it would have answered a longing of Jack's if he could even imagine that their spirits had passed through that strange old house. Just the thought of it might bring him back, and the place would seem changed, to him and to her. As if all that saving and keeping their father had done was providence indeed, and new love would transform all the old love and make its relics wonderful." As a novelist Robinson illuminates the souls of people who live lives of quiet desperation.

I mean souls in exactly the same way Robinson does in When I Was A Child:

Having read any number of times that the human brain is the most complex object known to exist in the universe, and that the mind is not identical with the brain but is more mysterious still, it seems to me that this astonishing nexus of the will, so uniquely elegant and capable, merits a name that would indicate a difference in kind from the ontological run of things, and for my purposes 'soul' would do nicely.

AFTER HOUSEKEEPING, Robinson turned to non-fiction, which, If I'm reading her correctly, has served as an outward expression of her primary concerns before they were filtered and reshaped in her fiction.

Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State, and Nuclear Pollution, published in 1989, is an extraordinary and little-read book—many of Robinson's fans have never even heard of it. I did not know of it myself until I saw a copy at my local library book sale and was astonished to find that the author of Housekeeping had written a book on nuclear pollution.

I didn't think anyone was capable of getting me to read a book on this subject, but I was riveted from the first sentence: "The largest producer of plutonium in the world and the largest source, by far, of radioactive contamination of the world's environment is Great Britain."Plutonium dumped into the sea from the notorious government-owned Sellafield Plant "has already been found in Ireland, Iceland, Sweden, Denmark and Belgium." It is "perhaps not irrelevant to note ... that Britain leads the world in lung cancer deaths."

This is scary stuff, written by a writer not given to hyperbole. "My attack," she says,"will seem ill-tempered and eccentric, a veering toward anarchy, the unsettling emergence as lady novelist as petroleuse." (I'm sorry to interrupt this eloquent diatribe, but I have to point out the use of the magnificent word "petroleuse," which, after 30 minutes of frantic research, I discovered is the name for the women of the Paris Commune of 1871 who are accused of burning down a big chunk of Paris.) "I am angry to the depths of my soul that the earth has been so injured while we were all bemused by supposed monuments of self and intellect, vaults of bogus cultural riches ... The grief come home to others while I and my kind have been occupied lies on my conscience like a crime."

With a passion and clarity missing from most political journalists, she strips away myths about British and American histories of social responsibility.Her conviction that the US's commitment to social justice is considerably greater—considerably greater—than the UK's is eye-popping. For instance, the relative state of government support for its citizens: "Why do the Land Grant Act, the Homestead Act, and the GI Bill, three distributions of wealth to the public on a scale never contemplated in Britain, have no status among political events when the dreary traffic in pittances institutionalized as the British Welfare State is hailed as the advance of socialism?"

Contrary to the fears of American conservatives that the US is veering towards a British-type socialism, "Almost no one in the West spends as little on health care as the British, despite the fact that they lead the world in death rates from heart disease and lung cancer."

The bedrock British political assumption, she finds, "is that absolutely nothing belongs to the general public inalienably by the logic of collective interests or by right ... public ownership of a bridge, a tunnel, or a river is for them a departure from the natural order of things." It's hard for an American to read these words nearly a quarter of a century later without a shudder as we recognize a similar attitude taking hold here. And with it comes an arrogance that rationalizes the right of the powerful to pollute what belongs to all of us: "It is a very comfortable thing," she concludes, "to think that the greatest threat to the world is a decision still to be made, which may never be made—that is, the decision to engage in nuclear warfare. Sadly, the truth is quite otherwise. The earth has been under attack for almost half a century." And by now, for nearly three-quarters of a century. It's impossible to read Mother Country without wishing that Robinson would update the story.

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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