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    Original Essays | July 14, 2015

    Joshua Mohr: IMG Your Imagination, Your Fingerprint

    When I was in grad school, a teacher told our workshop that if a published novel is 300 pages, the writer had to generate 1,200 along the way. I... Continue »
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      All This Life

      Joshua Mohr 9781593766030

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Lila Cover

ISBN13: 9780374187613
ISBN10: 0374187614
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The child was just there on the stoop in the dark, hugging herself against the cold, all cried out and nearly sleeping. She couldnt holler anymore and they didnt hear her anyway, or they might and that would make things worse. Somebody had shouted, Shut that thing up or Ill do it! and then a woman grabbed her out from under the table by her arm and pushed her out onto the stoop and shut the door and the cats went under the house. They wouldnt let her near them anymore because she picked them up by their tails sometimes. Her arms were all over scratches, and the scratches stung. She had crawled under the house to find the cats, but even when she did catch one in her hands it struggled harder the harder she held on to it and it bit her, so she let it go. Why you keep pounding at the screen door? Nobody gonna want you around if you act like that. And then the door closed again, and after a while night came. The people inside fought themselves quiet, and it was night for a long time. She was afraid to be under the house, and afraid to be up on the stoop, but if she stayed by the door it might open. There was a moon staring straight at her, and there were sounds in the woods, but she was nearly sleeping when Doll came up the path and found her there like that, miserable as could be, and took her up in her arms and wrapped her into her shawl, and said, “Well, we got no place to go. Where we gonna go?”

If there was anyone in the world the child hated worst, it was Doll. Shed go scrubbing at her face with a wet rag, or shed be after her hair with a busted comb, trying to get the snarls out. Doll slept at the house most nights, and maybe she paid for it by sweeping up a little. She was the only one who did any sweeping, and shed be cussing while she did it, Dont do one damn bit of good, and someone would say, Then leave it be, dammit. Thered be people sleeping right on the floor, in some old mess of quilts and gunnysacks. You wouldnt know from one day to the next.

When the child stayed under the table they would forget her most of the time. The table was shoved into a corner and they wouldnt go to the trouble of reaching under to pull her out of there if she kept quiet enough. When Doll came in at night she would kneel down and spread that shawl over her, but then she left again so early in the morning that the child would feel the shawl slip off and shed feel colder for the lost warmth of it, and stir, and cuss a little. But there would be hardtack, an apple, something, and a cup of water left there for her when she woke up. Once, there was a kind of toy. It was just a horse chestnut with a bit of cloth over it, tied with a string, and two knots at the sides and two at the bottom, like hands and feet. The child whispered to it and slept with it under her shirt.

Lila would never tell anyone about that time. She knew it would sound very sad, and it wasnt, really. Doll had taken her up in her arms and wrapped her shawl around her. “You just hush now,” she said. “Dont go waking folks up.” She settled the child on her hip and carried her into the dark house, stepping as carefully and quietly as she could, and found the bundle she kept in her corner, and then they went out into the chilly dark again, down the steps. The house was rank with sleep and the night was windy, full of tree sounds. The moon was gone and there was rain, so fine then it was only a tingle on the skin. The child was four or five, long-legged, and Doll couldnt keep her covered up, but she chafed at her calves with her big, rough hand and brushed the damp from her cheek and her hair. She whispered, “Dont know what I think Im doing. Never figured on it. Well, maybe I did. I dont know. I guess I probly did. This sure aint the night for it.” She hitched up her apron to cover the childs legs and carried her out past the clearing. The door might have opened, and a woman might have called after them, Where you going with that child? and then, after a minute, closed the door again, as if she had done all decency required. “Well,” Doll whispered, “well just have to see.”

The road wasnt really much more than a path, but Doll had walked it so often in the dark that she stepped over the roots and around the potholes and never paused or stumbled. She could walk quickly when there was no light at all. And she was strong enough that even an awkward burden like a leggy child could rest in her arms almost asleep. Lila knew it couldnt have been the way she remembered it, as if she were carried along in the wind, and there were arms around her to let her know she was safe, and there was a whisper at her ear to let her know that she shouldnt be lonely. The whisper said, “I got to find a place to put you down. I got to find a dry place.” And then they sat on the ground, on pine needles, Doll with her back against a tree and the child curled into her lap, against her breast, hearing the beat of her heart, feeling it. Rain fell heavily. Big drops spattered them sometimes. Doll said, “I should have knowed it was coming on rain. And now you got the fever.” But the child just lay against her, hoping to stay where she was, hoping the rain wouldnt end. Doll may have been the loneliest woman in the world, and she was the loneliest child, and there they were, the two of them together, keeping each other warm in the rain.

When the rain ended, Doll got to her feet, awkwardly with the child in her arms, and tucked the shawl around her as well as she could. She said, “I know a place.” The childs head would drop back, and Doll would heft her up again, trying to keep her covered. “Were almost there.”

It was another cabin with a stoop, and a dooryard beaten bare. An old black dog got up on his forelegs, then his hind legs, and barked, and an old woman opened the door. She said, “No work for you here, Doll. Nothing to spare.”

Doll sat down on the stoop. “Just thought Id rest a little.”

“What you got there? Whered you get that child?”

“Never mind.”

“Well, you better put her back.”

“Maybe. Dont think I will, though.”

“Better feed her something, at least.”

Doll said nothing.

The old woman went into the house and brought out a scrap of corn bread. She said, “I was about to do the milking. You might as well go inside, get her in out of the cold.”

Doll stood with her by the stove, where there was just the little warmth of the banked embers. She whispered, “You hush. I got something for you here. You got to eat it.” But the child couldnt rouse herself, couldnt keep her head from lolling back. So Doll knelt with her on the floor to free her hands, and pinched off little pills of corn bread and put them in the childs mouth, one after another. “You got to swallow.”

The old woman came back with a pail of milk. “Warm from the cow,” she said. “Best thing for a child.” That strong, grassy smell, raw milk in a tin cup. Doll gave it to her in sips, holding her head in the crook of her arm.

“Well, she got something in her, if she keeps it down. Now Ill put some wood on the fire and we can clean her up some.”

When the room was warmer and the water in the kettle was warm, the old woman held her standing in a white basin on the floor by the stove and Doll washed her down with a rag and a bit of soap, scrubbing a little where the cats had scratched her, and on the chigger bites and mosquito bites where she had scratched herself, and where there were slivers in her knees, and where she had a habit of biting her hand. The water in the basin got so dirty they threw it out the door and started over. Her whole body shivered with the cold and the sting. “Nits,” the old woman said. “We got to cut her hair.” She fetched a razor and began shearing off the tangles as close to the childs scalp as she dared—“I got a blade here. She better hold still.” Then they soaped and scrubbed her head, and water and suds ran into her eyes, and she struggled and yelled with all the strength she had and told them both they could rot in hell. The old woman said, “Youll want to talk to her about that.”

Doll touched the soap and tears off the childs face with the hem of her apron. “Never had the heart to scold her. Thems about the only words I ever heard her say.” They made her a couple of dresses out of flour sacks with holes cut in them for her head and arms. They were stiff at first and smelled of being saved in a chest or a cupboard, and they had little flowers all over them, like Dolls apron.

*   *   *

It seemed like one long night, but it must have been a week, two weeks, rocking on Dolls lap while the old woman fussed around them.

“You dont have enough trouble, I guess. Carrying off a child thats just going to die on you anyway.”

“Aint going to let her die.”

“Oh? Whens the last time you got to decide about something?”

“If I left her be where she was, sheda died for sure.”

“Well, maybe her folks wont see it that way. They know you took her? What you going to say when they come looking for her? Shes buried in the woods somewhere? Out by the potato patch? I dont have troubles enough of my own?”

Doll said, “Nobody going to come looking.”

“You probly right about that. Thats the spindliest damn child I ever saw.”

But the whole time she talked shed be stirring a pot of grits and blackstrap molasses. Doll would give the child a spoonful or two, then rock her a little while, then give her another spoonful. She rocked her and fed her all night long, and dozed off with her cheek against the childs hot forehead.

The old woman got up now and then to put more wood in the stove. “She keeping it down?”


“She taking any water?”


When the old woman went away again Doll would whisper to her, “Now, dont you go dying on me. Put me to all this bother for nothing. Dont you go dying.” And then, so the child could barely hear, “You going to die if you have to. I know. But I got you out of the rain, didnt I? Were warm here, aint we?”

After a while the old woman again. “Put her in my bed if you want. I guess I wont be sleeping tonight, either.”

“I got to make sure she can breathe all right.”

“Let me set with her then.”

“Shes clinging on to me.”

“Well.” The old woman brought the quilt from her bed and spread it over them.

The child could hear Dolls heart beating and she could feel the rise and fall of her breath. It was too warm and she felt herself struggling against the quilt and against Dolls arms and clinging to her at the same time with her arms around her neck.


Copyright © 2014 by Marilynne Robinson

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gopherprairieexile, October 21, 2014 (view all comments by gopherprairieexile)
I believe we are all spiritual beings temporarily occupying (dare I say, being held captive by?)a body, and Marilynne Robinson is the embodiment of that concept brought to its highest possible level. Gilead is a life-altering book if you're paying attention at all, and with Home and now with Lila, Robinson is piecing on to that story, and creating a humble world of decency, thought, acceptance, kindness, depth, intelligence, everything that is missing from a society where people actually have to be told not to text while driving, and still do it anyway. In Home, we learn the story of a character discussed in Gilead but from only one perspective. In Lila, we learn about a character from Gilead who we really didn't know at all. Robinson shows us that each person's story is a novel to be told, even if they only make a modest appearance in someone else's story. If you've read Gilead and then Home and are wondering whether Lila is worth it, wonder no more. If you haven't read these books, what are you waiting for? And don't tell me idk!
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Carolyn Ezell Foster, October 9, 2014 (view all comments by Carolyn Ezell Foster)
Although I am usually quite verbal, I have no words adequate to describe Lila, Marilynne Robinson's latest novel, issued by Farrar, Straus and Giroux two days ago (OCTOBER 7, 2014). To the lovely mystery of Gilead and Home, the two works of fiction introducing Lila and the elderly Congregational minister John Ames, Robinson has added another dimension of love in the portrayal of Doll who nurtured Lila in Lila's childhood and youth. Only an author with perceptive imagination, magical genius, and literary grace could have given us such a transcendent story.
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Product Details

Robinson, Marilynne
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Literature-A to Z
Edition Description:
Publication Date:
8.25 x 5.5 in 1 lb

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Lila New Hardcover
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Product details 272 pages Farrar, Straus and Giroux - English 9780374187613 Reviews:
"Staff Pick" by ,

With Lila, Marilynne Robinson revisits her beloved town of Gilead, just as she did with Home. This time around, her focus is on Lila Ames, who in both previous novels has been a sort of paragon of calm and dignity. In Lila we learn about her childhood and young adulthood, which could not be further from calm or dignified. Lila lives through a childhood that begins in neglect and works its way through unceasing labor, abandonment, and the endless struggle for survival. Unexpectedly arriving in Gilead, Iowa, and meeting the Reverend John Ames, Lila's life is about to take another sharp turn. The Gilead/Home/Lila trilogy, read together, is a gorgeous, layered, nuanced look at small-town America, full of beauty and peace — truly home. Exploring themes of trust, family, rebirth, security, and love, Lila is stunning and beautiful. It's an intricate look at the complexities of the heart.

"Staff Pick" by ,

Yet another quiet masterpiece from Marilynne Robinson, Lila stood head and shoulders above the rest of my reading this year. I can still hear Lila's voice in my head months later, and I can't remember the last time I finished a book and had such a lingering sense of a character's presence, as if I'd actually spent time with a living, breathing person. I haven't been so exquisitely lost in a book in years, and continue to be grateful for Robinson's evident fascination with this tiny town in midcentury Iowa and the souls who reside there.

"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "This third of three novels set in the fictional plains town of Gilead, Iowa, is a masterpiece of prose in the service of the moral seriousness that distinguishes Robinson's work. This time the narrative focuses on Lila, the young bride of elderly Reverend Ames, first met in Gilead. Rescued as a toddler from abusive caretakers by a rough but kind drifter named Doll, raised with love but enduring the hard existence of a field worker, and later, in a St. Louis whorehouse, Lila is a superb creation. Largely uneducated, almost feral, Lila has a thirst for stability and knowledge. As she yearns to forget the terrible memories and shame of her past, Lila is hesitant to reveal them to her loving new husband. The courtship of the couple — John Ames: tentative, tender, shy, and awkward; Lila: naive, suspicious, wary, full of dread — will endure as a classic set piece of character revelation, during which two achingly lonely people discover the comfort of marital love. Threaded through the narrative are John Ames's troubled reflections that the doctrines of his Calvinist theology, including the belief that those who are not saved are destined for hell, are too harsh. Though she reads the Bible to gain knowledge, Lila resists its message, because it teaches that her beloved Doll will never gain the peace of heaven. Her questions stir up doubt in Ames's already conflicted mind, and Robinson carefully crafts this provocative and deeply meaningful spiritual search for the meaning of existence. What brings the couple together is a joyous appreciation of the beauty of the natural world and the possibility of grace. The novel ends with the birth of their son, to whom Ames will leave his diary in Gilead." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"Review" by , "Writing in lovely, angular prose that has the high loneliness of an old bluegrass tune, Ms. Robinson has created a balladlike story....The novel is powerful and deeply affecting....Ms. Robinson renders [Lila's] tale with the stark poetry of Edward Hopper or Andrew Wyeth."
"Review" by , "Ever since the publication of Robinson's thrilling first novel, Housekeeping, reviewers have been pointing out that, for an analyst of modern alienation, she is an unusual specimen: a devout Protestant, reared in Idaho. She now lives in Iowa City, where she teaches at the Iowa Writers Workshop and where, for years, she has been accustomed to interrupting her career as a novelist to produce essays on such matters as the truth of John Calvin's writings. But Robinson's Low Church allegiance has hugely benefitted her fiction....This is an unflinching book."
"Review" by , "Marilynne Robinson tracks the movements of grace as if it were a wild animal, appearing for fleeting intervals and then disappearing past the range of vision, emerging again where we least expect to find it. Her novels are interested in what makes grace necessary at all — shame and its afterlife, loss and its residue, the limits and betrayals of intimacy. In Lila, her brilliant and deeply affecting new novel, even her description of sunlight in a St. Louis bordello holds a kind of heartbreak....Robinson's determination to shed light on...complexities — the solitude that endures inside intimacy, the sorrow that persists beside joy — marks her as one of those rare writers genuinely committed to contradiction as an abiding state of consciousness. Her characters surprise us with the depth and ceaseless wrinkling of their feelings."
"Review" by , "Radiant....As in Gilead and Home, Robinson steps away from the conventions of the realistic novel to deal with metaphysical abstractions, signaling by the formality of her language her adoption of another convention, by which characters inhabiting an almost Norman Rockwell-ish and think on a spiritual plane....[Lila is] a mediation on morality and psychology, compelling in its frankness about its truly shocking subject: the damage to the human personality done by poverty, neglect and abandonment."
"Review" by , "In her new novel, Lila, Marilynne Robinson has written a deeply romantic love story embodied in the language and ideas of Calvinist doctrine. She really is not like any other writer. She really isn't....Robinson has created a small, rich and fearless body of work in which religion exists unashamedly, as does doubt, unashamedly."
"Review" by , "Robinson's genius is for making indistinguishable the highest ends of faith and fiction....The beauty of Robinson's prose suggests an author continually threading with spun platinum the world's finest needle."
"Review" by , "Robinson has created a tour de force, an unforgettably dynamic odyssey, a passionate and learned moral and spiritual inquiry, a paean to the earth, and a witty and transcendent love story — all within a refulgent and resounding novel so beautifully precise and cadenced it wholly tranfixes and transforms us."
"Review" by , "This is a lovely and touching story that grapples with the universal question of how God can allow his children to suffer. Recommended for fans of Robinson as well as those who enjoyed Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge, another exploration of pain and loneliness set against the backdrop of a small town."
"Review" by , "Literary lioness Robinson — she's won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, a Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, and a National Book Critics Circle Award, among other laurels — continues the soaring run of novels with loosely connected story lines and deep religious currents that she launched a decade ago, almost a quarter century after her acclaimed fiction debut, Housekeeping....Lila's journey — its darker passages illuminated by Robinson's ability to write about love and the natural world with grit and graceful reverence — will mesmerize both longtime Robinson devotees and those coming to her work for the first time."
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