Sunday, February 12, 2012


Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004
Hardcover, 247 pages
ISBN-13: 9780374153892


In 1956, toward the end of Reverend John Ames's life, he begins a letter to his young son, an account of himself and his forebears. Ames is the son of an Iowan preacher and the grandson of a minister who, as a young man in Maine, saw a vision of Christ bound in chains and came west to Kansas to fight for abolition: He "preached men into the Civil War," then, at age fifty, became a chaplain in the Union Army, losing his right eye in battle. Reverend Ames writes to his son about the tension between his father—an ardent pacifist—and his grandfather, whose pistol and bloody shirts, concealed in an army blanket, may be relics from the fight between the abolitionists and those settlers who wanted to vote Kansas into the union as a slave state. And he tells a story of the sacred bonds between fathers and sons, which are tested in his tender and strained relationship with his namesake, John Ames Boughton, his best friend's wayward son.
This is also the tale of another remarkable vision—not a corporeal vision of God but the vision of life as a wondrously strange creation. It tells how wisdom was forged in Ames's soul during his solitary life, and how history lives through generations, pervasively present even when betrayed and forgotten.

My Thoughts:

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson is an epistolary novel, a letter written by John Ames, a 76 year old fourth-generation Congregationalist minister to his seven year old son. It is 1956 and Ames is dying. He wants to leave a letter for his son. He discusses family history and stories of his father and grandfather, reflections and meditations on life, his concern for his family, and the basis for his Christian values.

The relationship between fathers and sons is a central theme in Gilead.  The novel is a letter written to his son. He tells of his grandfather, a militant abolitionist who supported John Brown in Kansas and lost an eye in the Civil War. In contrast, his father was a pacifist. And while Ames was called to the ministry, his brother Edward became an unbeliever. He also talks about his good friend, Presbyterian minister Boughton and his family, especially Boughton's prodigal son and Ames's namesake, John Ames Boughton.

In Gilead, Marilynne Robinson has created a quiet, rich, reflective novel. There is atonement and redemption found in the very human stories Ames writes about for his son. Ultimately they define the faith of his Christian walk and the meaning of his life. Robinson gives Ames a wise, gentle, and, at times, melancholy voice as he writes his letter, which digresses and meanders between topics as easily as an elderly relatives conversation might wander from subject to subject. Ames is an honest narrator who has no reason to write anything but the truth. As he nears the end of his life, he knows that life is never to be taken for granted.

This is truly a stunning novel. The writing is exquisite.
Marilynne Robinson won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize Winner for Fiction and was the 2004 National Book Critics Circle Winner for Gilead.
Very Highly Recommended


I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I'm old, and you said, I don't think you're old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren't very old, as if that settled it. I told you you might have a very different life from mine, and from the life you've had with me and that would be a wonderful thing, there are many ways to live a good life. And you said, Mama already told me that. And then you said, Don't laugh! because you thought I was laughing at you. You reached up and put your fingers on my lips and gave me that look I never in my life saw on any other face besides your mother's. It's a kind of furious pride, very passionate and stern. I'm always a little surprised to find my eyebrows unsigned after I've suffered one of those looks. I will miss them.
It seems ridiculous to suppose the dead miss anything. If you're a grown man when you read this-it is my intention for this letter that you will read it then-I'll have been gone a long time. I'll know most of what there is to know about being dead, but I'll probably keep it to myself. That seems to be the way of things. opening

That is the main thing I want to tell you, that I regret very deeply the hard times I know you and your mother must have gone through, with no real help from me at all, except my prayers, and I pray all the time. I did while I lived, and I do now, too, if that is how things are in the next life. pg. 4

That's the strangest thing about this life, about being in the ministry. And then sometimes those very same people come into your study and tell you the most remarkable things. There's a lot under the surface of life, everyone knows that. A lot of malice and dread and guilt, and so much loneliness, where you wouldn't really expect a find it, either. pg. 6

Your mother told you I'm writing your begats, and you seemed very pleased with the idea. Well, then. What should I record for you? I, John Ames, was born in the Year of Our Lord 1880 in the state of Kansas, the son of John Ames and Martha Turner Ames, grandson of John Ames and Margaret Todd Ames. At this writing I have lived seventy-six years, seventy-four of them here in Gilead, Iowa, excepting study at he college and at seminary. pg. 9

My father always preached from notes, and I wrote my sermons out word for word. There are boxes of them in the attic, a few recent years of them in stacks in the closet. I've never gone back to them to see if they were worth anything, if I actually said anything. Pretty nearly my whole life's work is in those boxes, which is an amazing thing to reflect on. I could look through them, maybe find a few I would want you to have. I'm a little afraid of them. I believe I may have worked over them as I did just to keep myself occupied. pg. 18

Thank God for them all, of course, and for that strange interval, which was most of my life, when I read out of loneliness, and when bad company was much better than no company. You can love a bad book for its haplessness or pomposity or gall, if you have that starveling appetite for things human, which I devoutly hope you never will have. pg. 39


Unknown said...

I think I am going to try this one in audio. I hope the reader has a nice voice...

I have heard around that this is a wonderful novel.

Jeanne said...

I loved her first novel and so I tried to read this one, but I couldn't get interested in it, which was a surprise. Maybe I'll try again sometime.

Lori L said...

I'll be waiting to see what you think of it, Shellie.

Jeanne, I wasn't in love with Housekeeping so I put off trying Gilead for a long time. I enjoyed Gilead much more than Housekeeping.