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Gilead: A Novel Paperback – January 10, 2006

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Editorial Reviews Review

In 1981, Marilynne Robinson wrote Housekeeping, which won the PEN/Hemingway Award and became a modern classic. Since then, she has written two pieces of nonfiction: Mother Country and The Death of Adam. With Gilead, we have, at last, another work of fiction. As with The Great Fire, Shirley Hazzards's return, 22 years after The Transit of Venus, it was worth the long wait. Books such as these take time, and thought, and a certain kind of genius. There are no invidious comparisons to be made. Robinson's books are unalike in every way but one: the same incisive thought and careful prose illuminate both.

The narrator, John Ames, is 76, a preacher who has lived almost all of his life in Gilead, Iowa. He is writing a letter to his almost seven-year-old son, the blessing of his second marriage. It is a summing-up, an apologia, a consideration of his life. Robinson takes the story away from being simply the reminiscences of one man and moves it into the realm of a meditation on fathers and children, particularly sons, on faith, and on the imperfectability of man.

The reason for the letter is Ames's failing health. He wants to leave an account of himself for this son who will never really know him. His greatest regret is that he hasn't much to leave them, in worldly terms. "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?" In the course of the narrative, John Ames records himself, inside and out, in a meditative style. Robinson's prose asks the reader to slow down to the pace of an old man in Gilead, Iowa, in 1956. Ames writes of his father and grandfather, estranged over his grandfather's departure for Kansas to march for abolition and his father's lifelong pacifism. The tension between them, their love for each other and their inability to bridge the chasm of their beliefs is a constant source of rumination for John Ames. Fathers and sons.

The other constant in the book is Ames's friendship since childhood with "old Boughton," a Presbyterian minister. Boughton, father of many children, favors his son, named John Ames Boughton, above all others. Ames must constantly monitor his tendency to be envious of Boughton's bounteous family; his first wife died in childbirth and the baby died almost immediately after her. Jack Boughton is a ne'er-do-well, Ames knows it and strives to love him as he knows he should. Jack arrives in Gilead after a long absence, full of charm and mischief, causing Ames to wonder what influence he might have on Ames's young wife and son when Ames dies.

These are the things that Ames tells his son about: his ancestors, the nature of love and friendship, the part that faith and prayer play in every life and an awareness of one's own culpability. There is also reconciliation without resignation, self-awareness without deprecation, abundant good humor, philosophical queries--Jack asks, "'Do you ever wonder why American Christianity seems to wait for the real thinking to be done elsewhere?'"--and an ongoing sense of childlike wonder at the beauty and variety of God's world.

In Marilynne Robinson's hands, there is a balm in Gilead, as the old spiritual tells us. --Valerie Ryan --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Fans of Robinson's acclaimed debut Housekeeping (1981) will find that the long wait has been worth it. From the first page of her second novel, the voice of Rev. John Ames mesmerizes with his account of his life—and that of his father and grandfather. Ames is 77 years old in 1956, in failing health, with a much younger wife and six-year-old son; as a preacher in the small Iowa town where he spent his entire life, he has produced volumes and volumes of sermons and prayers, "[t]rying to say what was true." But it is in this mesmerizing account—in the form of a letter to his young son, who he imagines reading it when he is grown—that his meditations on creation and existence are fully illumined. Ames details the often harsh conditions of perishing Midwestern prairie towns, the Spanish influenza and two world wars. He relates the death of his first wife and child, and his long years alone attempting to live up to the legacy of his fiery grandfather, a man who saw visions of Christ and became a controversial figure in the Kansas abolitionist movement, and his own father's embittered pacifism. During the course of Ames's writing, he is confronted with one of his most difficult and long-simmering crises of personal resentment when John Ames Boughton (his namesake and son of his best friend) returns to his hometown, trailing with him the actions of a callous past and precarious future. In attempting to find a way to comprehend and forgive, Ames finds that he must face a final comprehension of self—as well as the worth of his life's reflections. Robinson's prose is beautiful, shimmering and precise; the revelations are subtle but never muted when they come, and the careful telling carries the breath of suspense. There is no simple redemption here; despite the meditations on faith, even readers with no religious inclinations will be captivated. Many writers try to capture life's universals of strength, struggle, joy and forgiveness—but Robinson truly succeeds in what is destined to become her second classic.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 247 pages
  • Publisher: Picador; Reprint edition (January 10, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 031242440X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312424404
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (963 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #395 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Marilynne Robinson is the author of the bestselling novels "Lila," "Home" (winner of the Orange Prize), "Gilead" (winner of the Pulitzer Prize), and "Housekeeping" (winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award).

She has also written four books of nonfiction, "When I Was a Child I Read Books," "Absence of Mind," "Mother Country" and "The Death of Adam." She teaches at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.

She has been given honorary degrees from Brown University, the University of the South, Holy Cross, Notre Dame, Amherst, Skidmore, and Oxford University. She was also elected a fellow of Mansfield College, Oxford University.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

1,186 of 1,219 people found the following review helpful By Eric Schenk VINE VOICE on November 15, 2004
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I considered Marilynne Robinson's first novel, "Housekeeping" to be one of the most beautifully written books I ever read and had hoped she would write another novel. However, when I learned that her new book was about the minister living in the middle of Iowa in the 1950's, I felt let down. I could not think of a setting in which I would have less interest. Nonetheless, I gave "Gilead" a try. I'm so glad I did. It is another example of what the English language is capable of. The prose is spare, as the subject demands. But it quickly becomes a meditation on how even the simplest life can be touched by grace and wonder. I am not a Christian. In fact, I am an atheist. But this book communicated to me the nurture that can be derived from heartfelt, clear minded, prosaic Christianity. Indeed I can't imagine a more spiritual text. I am not as young as I was when I read "Housekeeping" so I am not "swept away" by literature as I once was. But this lyrical book is on some subtle level, transforming. I understand why Ms. Robinson's quiet prose might not appeal to everyone. But this is truly a first rate work of fiction. I am a harsh critic, but I have no trouble giving this book five stars.
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371 of 385 people found the following review helpful By Mary Reinert on December 3, 2004
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Forgiveness, jealously, love, grace, faith, fear, and resentment are all themes so tightly woven into this beautifully written multi-generational story. Incidents in the story take place in rural Iowa and Kansas from the time of the Civil War through the 1950's. Although that time and culture is much different than most of us are now living, the characters of Rev. John Ames, his father, his grandfather, and his namesake John Ames Broughton are some of the most authentic that I have ever met in fiction.

Gilead is a spiritually fulfilling book and not because (or maybe in spite of the fact) most of the major characters are preachers. The fact that they are preachers only provides a clearer lens in which to see the issues of belief and doubt and how that belief or doubt affects our daily lives. Interesting note that one reviewer who states he is an atheist wrote the book "becomes a meditation on how even the simplest life can be touched by grace and wonder." Perhaps it is the simplest life that is most likely touched by grace and wonder as these characters demonstrate so beautifully in many ways such as Rev. Ames' final blessing of John Ames Broughton and the heartrending scene of the young neglected mother and her naked unnamed child playing in the stream.

I can't decide if this is a simple book or a complicated one, but it is one that could and should be read over and over. It is a significant book; however, do not think that it is "heavy." There is a quiet humor that often surfaces in the least expected places. I only hope that those with a cynical nature do not give up on it during the first part; it takes a while to work through some of the early narrative and what some might consider religious rambling but which provide the context for the confrontations that take place in the last third of the book.

In short, a beautiful book by an outstanding writer.
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292 of 316 people found the following review helpful By Tracy L. VINE VOICE on February 21, 2006
Format: Paperback
GILEAD is a book that has left me in a bit of a quandary. While I loved the book, I would be hesitant to recommend it to some since it does not conform to today's modern style of writing. This book is written without chapters, in a slowly paced style that requires readers to put themselves in the mindset of John Ames, a preacher in his mid-seventies who is nearing the end of his life. It is a journal of thoughts and memories that is being written to his son. There is no storyline, no plot to follow. It is purely an expression of love from a father to his son.

If you are looking for suspenseful plot twists, wacky best friends or humorous scenarios, this is not the book for you. If you simply want to read a stunning work of art, I highly recommend it.
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46 of 47 people found the following review helpful By Ed Uyeshima HALL OF FAMEVINE VOICE on November 27, 2004
Format: Hardcover
This is the work of a master storyteller that one could fairly compare with Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" and Carson McCullers' "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter". Author Marilynne Robinson has written a beautiful novel, concise and poignant with only a modicum of action but a depth of feeling all too rare in today's fiction. Set in mid-fifties Iowa, the dying, 76-year old Reverend John Ames narrates a long letter to his seven-year-old son born of his much younger second wife. It is not to be read until after the death of a father, who won't be around to see his boy grow up. The old man's purpose is to provide the boy with his "begats", a family history of biblical proportions that stretches from the Civil War to the civil rights movement. Through his discourse, Ames introduces his father and grandfather, who have split bitterly over the elder Ames' sometimes violent association with abolitionists, including John Brown. The reverend then details his boyhood quest to find the patriarch's Kansas grave. Before the Civil War, Gilead had become a haven for Brown and his supporters, as it was just across the border from bloody Kansas. The biblical parallels are clear, as Gilead is the land east of the Jordan traditionally viewed as the source of a healing salve, the balm of Gilead. But in the Old Testament, this same region also carries less than peaceful associations and is sometimes described as a place of bloodshed and inequity. With Brown, Ames' grandfather rode and once preached to his flock in a red-stained shirt with a pistol tucked in his belt. Ames tells this fascinating family history with alternate strokes of regret and pleasure.Read more ›
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