Relegating Race to a Side Plot.

I finished Marilynne Robinson's 2008 novel Home last night. Robinson's one of my favorite writers -- her first novel, Housekeeping is so good that I compulsively pick up copies to gift to friends. She has a particular way of describing place that reveals more about the characters inhabiting the space than any bit of dialogue or physical description could offer.

Home tells the story of a prodigal son returning home to a small town in Iowa to make a kind of peace with his minster father. Reviewers praised her depictions of the"difficult joys of a faith", and the search for redemption.

But I found myself really bothered by the hidden-and-eventual reveal of the prodigal son Jack's black wife. Throughout the novel, set during the height of the civil-rights movement, Jack is the one character who brings up the events in Montgomery and Christianity's uneasy history with race. And, to be fair, as Ann Friedman has written about so well, Iowa is very, very white. It's not surprising that the only way a black woman would have made it into a delicate novel about familial relations is through the son who lived in exile in the big bad city.

But this wife, who appears at the end of the novel in the flesh, is a token character, and she feels too obviously a plot point. It was a moment when someone went there, and I wished they hadn't. Not every invocation of race has to be a full blown conversation. There are ways to let race live in the background of your novel. But race is also an incredibly complex topic, and relegating it to convenient side plot, particularly when it's tied to a character who is struggling for redemption, is disappointing.

-- Phoebe Connelly

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