When I chose the topic for this month’s Essential Reading list, I felt vaguely certain that “Sacrifice” must be one of the most common ideas in all of literature. Even so, I’ve struggled to come up with a suitable contribution to the list. I keep thinking of operas—for instance, the aging Marschallin giving up her young lover Octavian for the sake of his future happiness in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. But sacrifice is, for most of us, not an event of operatic proportions; rather, it is a daily exercise in attention and accommodation. Marilynne Robinson’s quiet novel Home captures this kind of small but significant sacrifice beautifully. Glory Boughton, having left a “dream of an adult life” to care for her aged father, also ends up taking care of her wayward brother, Jack, when he, too, comes home. Her life is largely about putting meals on the table and hanging out laundry, but it is also about addressing the unspoken and unphysical needs of people who do not know quite how to make peace with themselves and those they love. While Jack feels that all of his many siblings are “native to their life as he could never be,” Glory understands that that’s an illusion, that “home” is elusive to the soul—not to his soul alone. Robinson tenderly illustrates the mundane but real sacrifices required in order to be truly present to the people closest to us.
Editor-in-Chief Caroline Grant recommends a story of secret sacrifice: “Set in 19th- century Philadelphia, Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things introduces us to some wonderfully memorable characters; it’s one of the quieter ones who is staying with me. Prudence is adopted as a young teenager by Henry and Beatrix Whittaker and raised up with their daughter Alma. The two girls are never allowed to forget that Prudence is the pretty one and Alma the brains in the family, and indeed, Alma becomes a noted botanist while Prudence moves into marriage and family. It’s not until the women are middle aged that Alma learns the truth about Prudence’s marriage and the great sacrifice she made for her sister. It vexes Alma, for as her plant studies have led her to develop a theory of ‘competitive alteration’ (a theory that her contemporary, Charles Darwin, will shortly publish as ‘survival of the fittest’), she can’t solve what she comes to think of as The Prudence Problem: What is the evolutionary benefit of sacrifice? It’s an interesting question to ponder long after finishing this lively novel.”
Kristina Riggle, Fiction Co-Editor, suggests a sobering exploration of our theme: “The non-fiction book The Girls Who Went Away is about an elemental kind of sacrifice: young, unprepared and unwed mothers giving up a child for adoption. This sacrifice could be noble and worthy, but as Ann Fessler’s searing book relates, untold young women of the fifties and sixties made it against their will. The devastating results of those forced sacrifices reverberate through the decades for the mothers and their surrendered children. This is painful but important reading.”