Cover of Gilead


A Novel

Marilynne Robinson

fter years of flirtation, I finally opened a Marilynne Robinson book.Gilead is beyond acclaimed (Pulitzer Prize, National Book Critics Circle, PEN/Faulkner) and so-often recommended that I was worried it might be overhyped. It was not. I may be a sucker for epistolary novels, but this imagined communication from an older reverand to his son on the occasion of what he takes to be a terminal heart condition, is moving, deep and incredibly evocative. Robinson teases out deep ideas and contemplations of John Ames, who has spent his life in a small town in Iowa, thinks of what his son might want to know about him after he is gone . Here is a depiction of mid-20th-century rural America that puts me in mind of John Williams Stoner for its unromanticized depiction of a difficult times, and Robinsion ingeniously incorporates the conflicts of the American experience into the text by its setting. The fictional Gilead is a flashpoint for abolitionist settlers from Kansas. The background radiation of white protestant American worldview might hit differently for a reader who did not grow up in an atmosphere thick with the same presumptions, where Christian scripture is assumed to map our world and guide us through it, and our lot is to reconcile our lived experience to that belief system or vice versa, but there is a deep reckoning with fundamental ideas about human nature and values for any reader. I wish I’d read it sooner but also feel kind of happy to have found a writer who lived up to my expectations, and whose body of work now feels like a treasure trove for me to mine.

Book Info

Picador (2020), 256 pages
ISBN/EAN Product Code
Publisher Description

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award, Gilead is the long-hoped-for second novel by Marilynne Robinson, one of our finest writers–a hymn of praise and lamentation to the God-haunted existence that Reverend Ames loves passionately, and from which he will soon part. In 1956, toward the end of Reverend John Ames’s life, he begins a letter to his young son, an account of himself and his forebears. Ames is the son of an Iowan preacher and the grandson of a minister who, as a young man in Maine, saw a vision of Christ bound in chains and came west to Kansas to fight for abolition: He “preached men into the Civil War,” then, at age fifty, became a chaplain in the Union Army, losing his right eye in battle. Reverend Ames writes to his son about the tension between his father–an ardent pacifist–and his grandfather, whose pistol and bloody shirts, concealed in an army blanket, may be relics from the fight between the abolitionists and those settlers who wanted to vote Kansas into the union as a slave state. And he tells a story of the sacred bonds between fathers and sons, which are tested in his tender and strained relationship with his namesake, John Ames Boughton, his best friend’s wayward son. This is also the tale of another remarkable vision–not a corporeal vision of God but the vision of life as a wondrously strange creation. It tells how wisdom was forged in Ames’s soul during his solitary life, and how history lives through generations, pervasively present even when betrayed and forgotten. (Publisher’s Description)

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