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.
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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…