Saturday, August 18, 2007

Gilead: A Book Review

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (New York: Picador, 2004), 247 pages. Sorry Murf, no pictures.

Gilead should be read slowly, taking time to savor the language and the scenes Robinson creates. I found myself reading a few pages, then pausing to think about what I’d read. The narrator of the book is dying and writing what appears to be his testimony to his child. That’s all you know from the first page. Slowly, bits and pieces of narrator become clear. John Ames is ill and in his late 70s; he didn’t marry till late in life, having met his wife when he was 67. She’s much younger and he cherishes her and the boy she’s given him. Yet, at the end of the book, it appears he’d been married earlier, and was a widower. It’s the 1950s. In these letters to his son, he tells him family stories, of his father and his grandfather. They were all Congregationalist preachers and the narrator is still the Congregational pastor in Gilead, Iowa. His grandfather (the boy’s great-grandfather), rode with John Brown in Kansas before the Civil War and must have killed at least one man. Then, in the Civil War, he loses and eye and afterwards becomes a one eyed eccentric preacher. As a child, he recalls traveling with his father to find his grandfather’s grave. The narrator’s father was turned off by the destruction of the Civil War and became a pacifist. For a time he refused to worship at his father’s church, going instead to sit with the Quakers, a decision that haunted him the rest of his life. Though telling stories, occasionally repeating them more than once, the narrator reveals his family’s history. The father tells the good and the bad, and in so doing instills hopes, faith and morals into a boy he’ll never see grown.

John Ames best friend is Boughton, the Presbyterian pastor in Gilead. As more is revealed about Boughton, the reader discovers that he too is old and probably dying. While he’s writing these memories for his son, Boughton’s son Jack comes back for the first time in years. It’s a grand homecoming for a prodigal son. Jack’s real name is John Ames Boughton, named for narrator, his father’s friend at a time it appeared that the narrator was not going to have any children of his own. In his memories, John recalls his encounters with Jack who proclaims to have no faith. It appears he thinks that Jack (who must be in his early 40s), might become a father to his boy and a husband to his wife when he’s gone, but then he learns that Jack is married (or at least married in the eyes of the Lord) to a black woman and has a mixed race child. Because of laws prohibiting such things in the 50s, they can’t legally be married. At the end of the book, Jack leaves to go back and to try to claim his wife (her father is also against the idea of the two being together).

In the telling of these stories, Marilynne Robinson weaves in discussion of philosophy and theology, a genuine appreciation for life and awe for creation. There are examples of the sacraments, such as the narrator’s father receiving a biscuit from his father, recalling it as a communion experience. In a way, for Robinson’s narrator, all life seems to be sacramental and therefore is to be savored. Gilead is a treat. I strongly recommend this book.

For more book reviews by Sage, click here.
For Semicolon's Saturday's list of book reviews in blogs, click here.

This review fulfills my commitment to read and review three books written by northern writers for “Ed’s DamnYankee Reading Challenge,” a reading challenge that came into being as a parody of Maggie’s Southern Reading Challenge. Although Robinson is from Idaho, the book is set in Iowa. (That's logical, everybody gets those two states confused anyway). Because one of the characters in the book fought for the Yankees, I think the book qualifies for northern lit. By the way, the author is a Calvinist, which is another good reason for reading the novel…


  1. Never heard of it, but it sounds interesting. Unfortunately I still have a list of about 15 books that I'm trying to get through by the end of the year. Just finished Haroun and the Sea of Stories, but Salman Rushdie. Not sure what's up next...

  2. Sounds very interesting. Am more interested in Southern books myself--have the book by Sue Kidd to read--takes place in South Carolina, my future home

    Fixed the link to John Baker--it's a great series--just glanced at it today for the link--no time--he has an interview with a very popular writer. The rest are less "popular" but fascinating, I think

  3. I loved this book - I find it interesting you didn't note what I felt was the major undercurrent of the book - that the narrator feared Jack would become involved with his wife and child, knowing what a rascal and ne'er do well he had always been . . . including fathering a child by a young girl from the proverbial wrong side of the tracks . . .

  4. Diesel for President in 2020 (that post in your blog was a hoot)! I too have many books waiting to be read...

    Pia, I did find Baker's blog via your blogroll and he does have an interesting series going.

    Diane, I'm glad to hear that you enjoyed it. I mentioned that at the end of the second paragraph his feelings about Jack and this family, but at points in the book I had the feeling that even though Jack had done some "bad things" and John Ames feared Jack would take his place, there was also something hopeful about that happening.

    Michael, thanks.

  5. I haven't given Gilead much thought, but your review has gotten me curious. Thank you for the great review!

  6. I read this awhile ago, so I might be confused, but wasn't there a child who he'd fathered by a local, poor white girl (who may have died) and then the more recent child with a black woman? And while he'd never done right by the first child (though his family had tried to) he was trying to do right by this second child?

    Interesting, but I didn't find anything hopeful about the possibility of his taking up with John's widow . . . it made me sick at the time I was reading it that he might step in after John died . . .

  7. I hope you enjoy it Feline!

    Diane, you're right about the other child who had died--I got the idea that was 20 years in the past. I agree that I wasn't "rooting" for him to step in, but there seemed to be something hopeful there--or maybe that's because John seemed to be able to still identify with Jack even though he'd caused a lot of grief to a lot of people.

  8. Sounds like a good read. One day I'm going to dwindle down my ever growing pile of books in my room so I can read some other things.

    Some day.

  9. Yeah, sounds like a very interesting and satisfying read. That the book has stirred up a nice discussion by you and Diane means high marks in my book. As always, great review.

  10. That book has lanquished around my house enough. I might just have to pick it up and read it, ah, but I don't know. I'm looking at March by Brooks and I kinda want it to be my #3 in the challenge. ;)

  11. I don't know how many times I've had to tell someone that Iowa is not the state that raises potatoes or that our school DO have more than one room. If I had a dollar for every time, I would at least be $100+ closer to retirement.

  12. In the telling of these stories, Marilynne Robinson weaves in discussion of philosophy and theology, a genuine appreciation for life and awe for creation.

    Sounds like some pictures should have been included to wake the reader up. :-)