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Gilead: A Novel Hardcover – November 19, 2004
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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
From Publishers Weekly
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This is not a story for the inattentive, or even for those who simply prefer a straightforward plot. Gilead's storyteller weaves back and forth between at least five different sub-plots, sometimes jumping ahead in one before telling us the meaning of the other. One almost needs to read it twice, simply to see again what he meant he made the reference to his grandfather in the first part of the story, before we had ever met his grandfather or known about his relationship with him. There is a central narrative of events that take place in the story's present, as the minister is writing, but this narrative is often sidelined by the stories of the past or general philosophical asides on Calvinist doctrine.
This may make the book sound dull or didactic, but in fact it is neither. The Calvinist doctrine comes across more as a character trait than as the author preaching at the reader, and reflect more on the self and the needs of the soul than on the nature of sin and the cosmos. And while the book is definitely slow and contemplative--even the stories of the past rarely ascend beyond a shouting match, the human drama at the heart of it makes the entire story compelling in a way that should resonate with many readers. The minister has fears, doubts, and regrets like any man, but he is also, unquestionably, a good man, looking back at his life and struggling with jealousies and resentments he knows are unjustified. He is a good man without being an idealized one; a refreshing thing in modern fiction.
Gilead is not a fiery book. It is not a fast book. It does not explode with passion or shout for your attention in the normal ways. It is wandering and thoughtful and at times conflicted. It is, in fact, most like sitting in the living room with a very old friend, talking of days that have gone by and days that are to come. It is a book for people of all ages, races, and creeds, and a book I thoroughly recommend.
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher, Southern View Chapel
Top international reviews
The thoughts and ideas of the reverend who narrates this book through writings to his son are so well developed that it seems to me that they must, at least in part, reflect the ideas of the author herself.
Some of the writing is philosophical in character and does need more careful attention then you might usually give to a novel. For example, when the reverend explains his view on our inability to understand the nature of God he writes :
" ... if God is the Author of existence what can it mean to say God exists? There's a problem in vocabulary. He would have had to have had a character before existence which the poverty of our understanding can only call existence. That is clearly a source of confusion". Not your standard fare!
But, don't get me wrong, the book is not all hard going and it does contain an interesting story, especially in the second half (which I wont spoil).
If I was to quibble with the book at all (and sometimes you simply feel not worthy to do so with some writers) it is that I didn't really like the book being presented as the writings of an elderly dying reverend to his very young son. I found this a bit of a distraction and would have preferred it to have been presented as a memoir to be read by me the reader.
But make no mistake Marilynne Robinson is a stellar writer, and this book has prompted me to investigate her more academic writings. I am partial to the writings of people like Dennett and Dawkins who she apparently attacks, so it should be interesting to see what she has to say on the limits of science.
Robinson writes with a clear unadorned style drawing heavily on biblical texts but it is not a religious tract, it is the story of a man’s life, his memories, his regrets and loves. The first few lines grabbed me and didn’t let me go. Do not start reading this book if you are feeling impatient. Some passages are easy and quick to read, others deserve more thought. It unwinds slowly like a length of thread, telling us the story of John Ames, his father and grandfather, the legacy of the Ames family which has been inherited by the Reverend’s seven-year old son.
I am not religious and some of the references will have passed me by. In the first half of the novel, I would think ‘oh no not another section about religion’, but as I read deeper into the book I became drawn into the stories of John Ames and his forebears and how their beliefs shaped their lives. I wanted to know what happened to John Ames Boughton, the troublesome son of his best friend and fellow reverend. I wanted to know how the Reverend Ames met his second wife. Some of the questions posed are not answered until the very end.
It is a peaceful novel, set against the backdrop of Fifties Iowa, which draws on local history including the Underground Railroad. Robinson draws a picture of the Gilead community, the people, their kindnesses, their grievances. She paints a clear picture. ‘We were very pious children from pious households in a fairly pious town.’
At times, the writing was so sublime I re-read. For example, ‘Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday. It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain. You can feel the silent and invisible life.’
‘Gilead’, the second novel by Marilynne Robinson, won two prizes in 2005: the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the National Book Critics Circle Award. I came to it with trepidation, having respected the writing style of her first novel, ‘Housekeeping’, but struggled with the pace of the narrative.
Threads of past events and relationships are hinted but left unresolved. I persevered but nearly gave up with all the talk of grace and predestination. Will I read Home and Lila the other novels based in the Iowa town? Maybe! The characters were interesting and it would be good to find out more about the stories of their lives.