In 2005, Robinson's novel Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize. Nearly ten years later, she returned to the small Iowa town of Gilead and its elderly preacher, Reverend John Ames, but from a very different angle. This time, we follow the story of his wife, Lila. (Full disclosure: I've not yet read Gilead.)
Lila is representative of a certain class of people who lived during the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. Born to a family that cared little for her, Lila was stolen away from them by Doll, who saved her life, named her, and treated her as her own. Doll was a hard woman in her own way, though not to Lila; she carried an ever-sharpened knife in her skirts, and bore a blood red mark upon her face. She attached herself and the little girl to a small band of itinerants led by a man named Doane. They were good enough people, looked after each other and worked together when there was work. They followed the seasons, slept outside, lived off the land when payment in money or kind could not be found. They were proud, in their own way. But the dust killed the farms, and the Depression broke the group up, until even Lila and Doll could no longer stay together. Left to herself, Lila survived and eventually made her way to Gilead, Iowa.
The writing in this book is without compare, though it did drag a bit at the very end. I flew through it, devouring every phrase. Lila's voice rings so honest and true; she is as complex and nuanced as any person, smart enough to know what she doesn't have and feel shame because of it. The story slides back and forth from the present, wherein Lila is pregnant with the preacher's baby, and the past she is both proud and ashamed of. It's impossible for me to exaggerate how good this novel is and how enthralled I became in Lila's small world. This is masterful storytelling, a gift to literature.