Author: Marilynne Robinson
Won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005
First line: "I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I'm old, and you said, I don't think you're old."
Gilead is an epistolary novel written by a Congregationalist minister to his young son. John Ames came to fatherhood rather late in life and regrets that he won't be able to watch his son grow to manhood. There are so many things he wants to tell the boy that can't be told to a six year old, and so he begins to write his letter in a journal.
"Your mother told you I'm writing your begats, and you seemed very pleased with the idea. Well, then. What should I record for you?"
As a minister who comes from a long line of ministers, John Ames is concerned with the human condition and the deeper things of the soul. There is much about the nature of love, friendship, faith and prayer in Gilead. Even the hard questions of Christianity are addressed as Jack, the son of John's lifelong friend, posits the philosophical query:
"Do you ever wonder why American Christianity seems to wait for the real thinking to be done elsewhere?"
John has kept pages and pages of sermons he has delivered over the years in which he "[tried] to say what was true." It is this pursuit of truth and personal integrity that seems to haunt John in his twilight years. The relationship between John and Jack has been strained for a very long time. These two men repeatedly attempt to understand each other and John feels deeply his failure, as both a minister and an elder, to comprehend and forgive the younger man. As John struggles to right this relationship, he reaffirms that redemption is neither simple nor easy.
The pace of the writing is very meditative and requires the reader to slow down and take up the tempo of an old man. While this was an effective device most of the time, I found my mind wandering far from the novel at other times. There are no chapter breaks, but there are "thought" breaks in which the author may pick up the same thread or shift to a new one. This format took a bit of getting used to, but once I adjusted it seemed appropriate for the teller of the story. The writing is spare and straightforward, which fits the setting and time -- a small prairie town of the 1950s populated by those who have seen much hardship.
"To me it seems rather Christlike to be unadorned as this place is, as little regarded."
Gilead is beautifully written and will, at times, take some work to read. The religious tone of the book should not be disturbing to those who follow a faith other than Christianity or follow no faith at all. What the author truly addresses in her pages is the human condition of which we are all a part.
Review by Terri L. Bogan, M.L.S.
Terri Bogan is the Reference & Instruction Librarian here at Hope International University. In her spare time, she reviews books for various publishers and maintains a book blog called Tip of the Iceberg.
The views in this book review are not necessarily the views of Hope International University.