The works of Marilynne Robinson have been a gap in my reading. I am a protestant minister and one of my most faith-filled members has read everything Robinson wrote, so I thought it high time to read her. This book astounded me. As an old preacher, I was stunned how Robinson captured so much of the ambiguity, deep rooted faith and experiences of a life long parson. Does that sound a little confused? It may be. Marilynne Robisnon captures it all. The minister in the book has a rock solid faith, but a realistic opinion of his work. The descriptions of his work as a preacher hit home. Two thirds of the way through this incredible book, I knew that when I reached the last page, I would start it over again to revisit its power and to capture what I might have missed. If you are a minister, you must read this book. Robinson demonstrates the extraordinary in the ordinary. She shepherds us up to our own death and helps us face it with confidence. She validates our lives in places where we wonder if they have had any impact. She makes clear the power of the church. The little church in Gilead where Ames preaches will die when he does. But that does not mean the death of faith. The victory is just under the surface. Just under the surface, filled with wonder and majesty. This book is an amazing unveiling of the truth of the Christian faith, barely hidden behind the curtain of human mortality. Robinson's guided tour of the dusty, dry insignificant town of Gilead is a walk through the deepest of our human experience. She shows us how to celebrate life and God and appreciate every last thing about this life and the life to come.
Gilead is a slow-burning novel told in retrospect by an old Midwestern minister facing death. It is scattered and covers a wide range of experiences, as the minister's letter--meant for his child, who is too young to understand it yet--jumps between his childhood, his father's childhood, his time in seminary, the family drama of his neighbors, and his own love story with his much-younger wife. But the heart of the story is beautifully human and contemplative.
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.
Robinson won the Pulitzer Prize for this fictional story of an aging and dying pastor who wants to leave for his young son a written legacy of his life. John Ames is a third generation pastor in the little town of Gilead, Iowa. He has spent virtually his whole life in Gilead, and most of it faithfully pastoring a little church. He married young and had a child, but both his wife and little girl died shortly after the child was born. Ames spent the rest of his life single until age 67 when a young woman attended a Pentecost service at which he was preaching. He immediately fell for her and marriage soon followed. A little boy brought joy to their home but at age 76 Ames is dying of heart disease and he is acutely aware that his son would never remember him, at least nothing of significance. So the pastor used his remaining energies to write his memoirs, not just events but of his thoughts, what his philosophy and theology was and what concerned him about the future for his wife and son. The result is a thoughtful, heartwarming story about life, what is important, and how we want to be remembered.
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher, Southern View Chapel
I'm an Austen scholar and I love Dickens and Hardy and Cather; recent fiction is not my cup of tea. Gilead is an exception; aside from the works of Willa Cather, I have rarely read any novel from the past century that I have liked so well. Robinson has captured a fantastic individual voice in the character of her narrator. He is carried through with great consistency and sensitivity. She navigates beautifully one of the most perilous seas for any writer, talking about religion, and achieves one of the most difficult feats: creating a religious character who is neither an unrealistic, one-dimensional saint nor an intolerable hypocrite. The novel is simple and forthright but also profound and complex. There are passages that can move you to tears; there are others that will make you laugh. Robinson also subtly creates real tension and even fear over the fate of the family our dying narrator will leave behind. She carefully avoids anything that smacks of pretentiousness. This is an impressive novel: one that lingers in your memory and in your heart.