Book Review: Gilead

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Marilynne Robinson, Gilead. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: 2004.

“I could never thank God sufficiently for the splendor He has hidden from the world and revealed to me in your sweetly ordinary face.”

Gilead. I read that word and I hear that old, slow, mournful tune in my head. ‘There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole…’

A couple of years ago, I set myself the task of reading all of the Pulitzer Prize winners for fiction. I’ve since discovered high and low points in American literature; I’ve discovered my favorite American novel and I’ve read some that made me wonder what kind of insanity the selection committee suffered from. But Gilead—the 2004 prize-winner by Marilynne Robinson—is wholly unlike any book I have ever read. There is little I could say about this lovely little novel that could do it justice and I fear any attempt to write about it will cheapen what it has to say. But I will give it a try.

Let me start by saying that Gilead will not be for everyone. It is a slow, sweet meditation on fathers and sons and on the meaning of grace, bestowed both by earthly fathers and a Heavenly One. If you never have deep spiritual ruminations of your own or have no sympathy with someone that clings tightly to their faith, Gilead will not be for you. If you need a book to move and have lots of things happen, Gilead will not be for you. But if you have patience and a yearning to find balm and beauty in what you read, Gilead will richly reward you.

The premise of Gilead is a simple one: minister John Ames, 76, of Gilead, Iowa, believes he is soon to die of heart failure and so begins writing to his young (seven-year-old) son. The words are his memoirs, but more than that, they contain the knowledge of life that Ames had hoped to pass to his son as he grew and the conversations he wishes he could share with his son in his adulthood. Ames, through writing to his son, revisits the many graces of God on his life and discovers the grace that he can pass on through his own daily living.

‘I’m writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you’ve done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle. You may not remember me very well at all, and it may seem to you to be no great thing to have been the good child of an old man in a shabby little town you will no doubt leave behind. If only I had the words to tell you.’

‘For me writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn’t writing prayers, as I was often enough. You feel that you are with someone. I feel I am with you now, whatever that can mean, considering that you’re only a little fellow now and when you’re a man you might find these letters of no interest. Or they might never reach you, for any of a number of reasons. Well, but how deeply I regret any sadness you have suffered and how grateful I am in anticipation of any good you have enjoyed. That is to say, I pray for you. And there’s an intimacy in it. That’s the truth.’

There are few ripples in the smoothness of John Ames’ reflections. The ripples that are there come in the form of tension between the fathers and sons in Ames’ family who, as Ames relates, each hold to their Christianity in different ways. His grandfather, the first minister named John Ames, moved west from Maine to Kansas to join in the abolition fight under John Brown. His son, the second John Ames and the narrator’s father, despised the ruthlessness of his father’s faith and turned toward pacifism. John Ames, our narrator, finds he has disagreements with both his father’s and grandfather’s faith.

The nature of Ames’ own faith is tested by his relationship with his godson and namesake, John Ames Boughton. “Jack” is mentioned casually early on, and the main element of suspense in the novel builds as Ames tells us about Jack in trickles and spurts. At the heart of his struggle with Jack is the hard fact that Jack once had what Ames longed for, and then threw it away. Jack carries himself in a way that gets under his godfather’s skin, and the whole experience leads Ames to dig deep into his understanding of grace—is it all-sufficient?

‘Sinners are not all dishonorable people, not by any means. But those who are dishonorable never really repent and never really reform. Now, I may be wrong here. No such distinction occurs in Scripture. And repentance and reformation are matters of the soul which only the Lord can judge. But, in my experience, dishonor is recalcitrant. When I see it, my heart sinks, because I feel I have no help to offer a dishonorable person. I know the deficiency may be my own altogether.’

I don’t cry when I read books, but I did while reading this one. At the risk of sounding like Anne Shirley, Gilead is just achingly beautiful. Reading it was a wonderful surprise, a balm for the literary soul who wonders if there is any good left in “good” literature. John Ames—a fiercely Christian man who also manages to be gentle and unobtrusive—will be with me for a long time. He and his little book remind me that “sometimes [it is] as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance—for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light.’ And with him, in his own quiet way, I say, “that is a remarkable thing to consider.”

Favorite quotes:

‘You can know a thing to death and be for all purposes completely ignorant of it. A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension.’

‘A good sermon is one side of a passionate conversation. It has to be heard in that way. There are three parties to it, of course, but so are there even to the most private thought—the self that yields the thought, the self that acknowledges and in some way responds to the thought, and the Lord. That is a remarkable thing to consider.’

‘You never do know the actual nature even of your own experience. Or perhaps it has no fixed and certain nature.’

‘When you encounter another person, when you have dealings with anyone at all, it is as if a question is being put to you. So you must think, What is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation? . . . If you think, as it were, This is an emissary sent from the Lord, and some benefit is intended for me, first of all the occasion to demonstrate my faithfulness, the chance to show that I do in some small degree participate in the grace that saved me, you are free to act otherwise than as circumstances would seem to dictate.’

‘I wish I could leave you certain of the images in my mind, because they are so beautiful that I hate to think they will be extinguished when I am. Well, but again, this life has its own mortal loveliness. And memory is not strictly mortal in its nature, either. It is a strange thing, after all, to be able to return to a moment, when it can hardly be said to have any reality at all, even in its passing. A moment is such a slight thing, I mean, that its abiding is a most gracious reprieve.’

‘In every important way we are such secrets from each other, and I do believe that there is a separate language in each of us, also a separate aesthetics and a separate jurisprudence. Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable—which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live. We take fortuitous resemblances among us to be actual likeness, because those around us have also fallen heir to the same customs, trade in the same coin, acknowledge, more less, the same notions of decency and sanity. But all that really just allows us to coexist with the inviolable, untraversable, and utterly vast spaces between us.’

‘Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave—that is to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm. And therefore, this courage allows us, as the old men said, to make ourselves useful. It allows us to be generous, which is another way of saying exactly the same thing.’