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It’s hard to imagine a less romantic place than a graveyard, but that's where Marilynne Robinson sets one of the first scenes in her new novel “Jack.” Here, Robinson introduces us to the budding romance between Jack Boughton and Della Miles as they bond over a night they spend together by chance, locked in the cemetery. Jack, a self described “bum” and the white son of a Presbtyrian minister, spends most of the novel dealing with the consequences (both practical and moral) of his relationship with Della, a Black school teacher.
The novel is the fourth in a series of books by Robinson following the characters of her Pulitzer-prize winning novel “Gilead.” “Jack,” unlike the previous three books, does not take place in Gilead, Iowa (though the town and Jack’s past loom in the background). Instead, Robinson places her titular character in a 1940s St. Louis, away from his family in Iowa. While the other books give context to the upbringing of Jack Boughton, “Jack” can be read and enjoyed as a stand-alone novel.
The centerpiece of Robinson’s novel is the relationship between Jack and Della. As an interracial couple in mid-twentieth century Missouri, Jack and Della face an uncertain and fraught future. Yet, in the scenes with just the two of them, Robinson creates an intimate world that feels sheltered and hopeful. As Della remarks during their evening in the graveyard, “It just seems to me sometimes as though — if we were the only ones left after the world ended, and we made the rules — they might work just as well.” As their relationship deepens, Jack and Della do just that, making a life for themselves through stolen moments, messages inscribed in books, and flowers left on porches.
Robinson tackles the moral implication of Jack and Della’s secret life together from a heavily religious angle. Jack, especially, agonizes over the impact of his role in Della’s life. As a white man, he puts Della in a dangerous position that could damage her reputation, risk her safety, and alienate her from her community. In a particularly striking scene, Jack listens to a sermon given by a minister who seems to speak directly to him. “If you think your sins are just going to vanish away like they never happened because Jesus loves you — well, I’ve got news. Jesus loves lots of people,” Robinson writes. Robinson’s examination of the ways love can be selfish and damaging is simultaneously engaging and heartbreaking.
“Jack,” however, comes up short in its discussion of race. While Robinson dedicates a lot of space to the societal opposition to Jack and Della’s relationship, Robinson fails to truly grapple with the weight of white supremacy and a racist society. Jack appears to mostly not think about race outside of how it immediately affects him, which feels far-fetched, considering the time period the book takes place in. Jack also spends the book entering a lot of Black spaces, and, while some Black characters point out the invasive nature of Jack’s presence, he doesn’t ever have to deal with the effect of this intrusion in any meaningful way. For Jack, race is just another divide between him and Della, no different from the fact that she is an honest school teacher, and he a once-imprisoned drifter.
Part of the problem lies in the fact that the narration is told entirely through the thoughts of Jack, thereby glossing over the opinions of Black characters who have their own perspectives on race. It's hard to read this book and not come away wishing that more time had been spent in the heads of Della and her family, rather than just in Jack's endlessly neurotic brain. In general, Jack, who is haunted by a dislike of self and the kind of guilt that comes from his upbringing, is a slightly tiresome character to spend 300 pages with, and while his attempts to gain moral footing can be interesting, they often are so long-winded that the emotional pull of the story becomes diluted.
Perhaps this problem results from the book's place as the fourth in a series. Robinson has dedicated so many pages to this world and its characters, that she fails to see where the characters get in the way of the story. “Jack” is, thus, a flawed read, yet Robinson’s beautiful prose, witty dialogue, and sharp takes on morality and love still shine through.
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