December 2004

Emily Cook

fiction

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson published her first book -- the beautiful and haunting Housekeeping -- in 1981, a novel which has managed to maintain a devoted and awestruck audience ever since. Now, we have been blessed with a new book, Gilead. Fans, beware: if you are looking for another book in the tradition of Housekeeping, think again. Robinson has written a new masterpiece, but it is nothing like her previous success.

Gilead is set in a quiet, small town of the same name in the middle of the Iowa prairie. The year is 1956, and 76-year old Reverend John Ames is close to the end of his life. As a way to soften the blow of his upcoming death (his heart is failing), he begins writing a letter to his young son -- a winding, careful account of himself and his forbearers.

The description sounds a bit tedious. A Reverend, recounting his life? Recounting the lives of his father, the Reverend, and his Grandfather, also a Reverend? It is almost impossible to convey how perfectly brilliant this story is when the topic sounds utterly boring. Then again, this is precisely why Robinson is so good -- she can take any lot of characters and make them interesting. The writing in Gilead is so lucid and exact, the story is so marvelously layered, that Robinson makes clergy life in a prairie town sound as fulfilling as Norman MacClean’s A River Runs Through It made fly fishing seem romantic.

The story gets more intriguing when you learn that the narrator’s stern and principled Grandfather left his boyhood home at the age of fourteen to fight for abolition -- later becoming a Chaplain for the Union Army and losing an eye in battle. The Grandfather’s eccentricities provide some of the most enjoyable scenes in the book: his habit of giving everything away, including the blankets off of his own bed, to any passerby asking for help, or the tensions that pass between himself and his own son, a devoted Pacifist, both stubborn and unflinching in their beliefs, but both too respectful to contradict each other. And then there is the ongoing feud between the narrator’s mother and Grandfather -- she hiding hard-earned dimes and nickels in the sugar bin and lard, lest he find them and give them away, and the Grandfather systematically shaking and rearranging the pantry in calm search, with the occasional overlooked nickel making it into supper.

The book’s pivotal tension arrives when the narrator’s namesake, Jack Ames Boughton -- son of his oldest friend, and town black sheep -- comes back to Gilead to see his dying father, but turns a good deal of his attention to the Reverend’s wife and son, and finally to the Reverend himself, edging his way into their lives. He has come with a problem, a serious, burning secret that he dare not worry his own father with. Before he can turn to the Reverend for guidance he plagues him with the question of faith, something which in turn causes the Reverend to face his own fragility. This particular plot line makes the book extremely hard to put down.

Reverend Ames’s voice is wise, meditative, and occasionally doubtful, for like any good counselor of men and women he takes his vocation seriously, and he worries about advice he has given, or words he has said that might be misconstrued. Having lived in the same town -- save two years spent at seminary -- for all of his life, he is tied into old habits and histories, and when he meets his current wife, the mother of his son, he can only mourn the fact that they did not find each other sooner in life, she being thirty-five years younger than he.

Gilead is a remarkable book, the language meticulous, the descriptions vivid, and the story complex and unique. Marilynne Robinson has again brought us a perfect novel, hard to get into at first, perhaps, for those who are daunted by a book-length letter, but utterly rewarding in its finish. This is a book to be treasured, kept and re-read from time to time, flipped back through for its magnificence and simple grandeur. We can only pray that she graces us with another fine novel, even if it is a few decades in the making.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 0374153892
256 Pages