Monday, January 14, 2013


By Marilynne Robinson

In the Bible "Gilead" means the hill of testimony or witness. In Marilynne Robinson's 2004 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Gilead is a fictional town in Iowa circa 1957. While I am not versed in the geography and topography of the state of Iowa, I have been led to believe that there are very few hills or mounds therefore one must presume at the onset of the book that Robinson is focused on the theme of testimony and witness rather than vertical geological formations. This isn't a particularly important observation, but it will help you get settled into the narrative.

The novel is essentially an extended letter from John Ames, an aging third-generation Congregationalist preacher, to his infant son. Ames, who married and had children rather late in life has been diagnosed with an unnamed heart condition and he feels the need to put pen to paper in order that his young son can shed some light on the history of the frontier town of Gilead and how it was intertwined in the relationship between his visionary (and often militant) abolitionist grandfather and his ardently pacifist father during the time of the Civil War. While the letter is clearly addressed to his son, one cannot help but pity Ames as he struggles to reconcile his love for both his father and grandfather despite their irreconcilable differences.

As Ames's writes the letter (over the course of several weeks, one presumes), events in his own life become more interesting when Jack Boughton the son of a close family friend returns after many years away. Ames's reticence prevents him from writing why this return is of such import, but it's plainly apparent that Boughton's reappearance has raised serious philosophical questions. After a prolonged theological debate with himself, Ames finally reveals the long sordid history of Jack Boughton and the events that have lead him back to town.

Robinson sets a slow, easy pace and a austere prairie town tone and maintains it for the duration of the novel. It's a pot of stew simmering on a country kitchen. The action in the novel is subtle, without the usual dramatics (not even a thunderstorm on the horizon). Gilead strolls along an an even pace, stopping often to smell the flowers or admire the pitching arm of a local boy. If a neighbor happens to invite this novel in for tea, it wouldn't object and the visit would be pleasant enough. But there is much laying under that thick layer of contentment. It is a testament to Robinson's restraint as an author that she allows them to resolve themselves in a series of stoic meditations.

Gilead is so many things at once. It's a deeply personal letter between an elderly father and an infant son. For Ames, who seems to value heritage, the letter functions as a generational bridge that would have otherwise become a chasm once the infirm Ames passes on, leaving his son with no understanding of where he came from. Despite his love for his wife, there is a profound guilt hardwired into the preacher's frontier Protestantism and seems bound by his duty to ensure his son knows and understands his father when they day arises that he should ask.

It  is also a confession of sorts for Ames himself as he recounts his own failings and tries to reconcile the actions of his hardline father and grandfather. In that sense, Ames seems to be the milquetoast of his family line, tending toward compromise and understanding. Ames, far more intellectually and metaphysically inclined preacher than his father and grandfather feels inadequate in relation to their convictions. Jack Boughton puts the preacher's convictions on trial when he seeks spiritual guidance from the man who has yet found the courage to forgive him his past transgressions.

Finally, Gilead is a theological treatise on the nature of love, death, forgiveness and faith. While Ames seems to love his own son unconditionally, there is another: John Ames (Jack) Boughton, the proverbial prodigal son returned. In the letter Ames wrestles with his own nature and meditates on his own relationship with Jack. In an effort to be honest with his son, Ames is forced to honest with himself about his relationship with his godson. Furthermore, Ames struggles with the notion of faith:

"Do you ever wonder why American Christianity always seems to wait for the real thinking to be done elsewhere?"

Incisive stuff.

Gilead is an exquisitely written examination of the self. It is written in the stark, language of turn-of-the-century mid-western Protestantism, the plain language of intrepid frontiersmen looking to forge a home on the desolate Iowan plain. It's about heroic love in the face of fallibility and the monumental task of achieving that sort of forgiveness. But don't go expecting a shootout and a car chase. This is the sort of novel that savors its themes, chews them slowly and ponders quietly. Worthy of the Pulitzer.


Brian Joseph said...

I laughed when I read your comment about the shootout and car chase. Maybe an aging Arnold Schwarzenegger. can star in the film version :)

Of course I like books such as this that are really about people. I would admit that based upon the description this would have to really be good to hold my interest. Based upon your commentary it sounds like it is.

Man of la Book said...

Sounds interesting. I read a few books which are written as letters (Dracula, Dangerous Liasons to name a few) and I can only assume that the format is difficult to write.

Anonymous said...


I'm currently reading her Housekeeping. Have you read it?

Ryan said...

I haven't. This was my first Robinson novel. Let me know how it is. i would like to read more of her work.

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