You don’t know “Jack.” Or you don’t at first.
Marilynne Robinson’s newest book tells the story of the courtship of Jack Boughton and Della Miles in 1950s St. Louis. There’s one giant snag in their relationship – it’s illegal. Jack is white and Della is Black. Both are children of preachers, but while Jack has fallen away from the straight and narrow path, Della has stayed on it. Much of “Jack” is taken up with theological conversations about redemption, grace and fate and how Jack and Della will navigate their relationship with those considerations.
For all of the Protestant examinations of unearned grace and predestination, we find Jack and Della in a purgatory at the beginning of the book, wandering around a graveyard, the intermediate place between life and afterlife. It’s a discreet place for the couple to meet and uncertainty over their future hangs over their conversation.
For most of the novel, Jack is like Hamlet, a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t sort; and one would expect him to pick up a human skull at any moment and meditate on the passage of time and the inevitability of death. He’s going nowhere in life, cycling between staying at boarding houses, passing out drunk on park benches, picking up odd jobs, getting mugged, and receiving occasional financial support from his mostly estranged family members.
Della, on the other hand, comes from a close-knit family, is an upstanding schoolteacher and the daughter of a bishop. Due to the enormous risk and social ostracization her relationship with Jack will bring her, Della’s family disapproves of her decisions. They send various family members from Memphis to talk her and Jack out of their courtship. Jack is acutely aware of the damage he can inflict on Della by merely being her husband and much of the book is a series of his interior monologues that weighs whether or not he should carry on with the relationship.
Robinson writes with breezy and elegant prose and “Jack” pulls the reader along. One will be easily absorbed by Jack’s relationship with Della and his path to redemption.