I’ve read Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead twice, most recently in 2014. This week a friend invited me to discuss the book, which brought to mind this booknote I published in another forum more than a decade ago.
The first thing that struck me as I read Gilead is the author’s elegant prose as she finds the voice of Congregational minister John Ames. He has spent his entire life in Gilead, Iowa. His first wife and daughter died long ago, and after decades living alone, he marries a much younger woman. Now, with his own death fast approaching, he writes a letter to his son, seven years old.
A significant part of the story is his long friendship with a Presbyterian minister. As the story unfolds, John Ames emerges as a man of deep faith, wise counsel, and a moral courage that proves itself, not through a single act of bravery, but over decades of unshakeable devotion to his church and community.
Ms. Robinson writes with thorough acquaintance both of the Bible and a variety of theological traditions. The novel presents a tapestry of family life that spans four generations of father and son relationships, with all their blessings, promising expectations, and bitter disappointments.
I know of no other novel that depicts unbelief so poignantly, presenting characters who think they have faith but don’t, those who deny the faith and are satisfied in their unbelief, and those who desperately want faith but can’t have it. Among the tragedies of unbelief is exclusion from the community of faith.
Ames reflects on nature and the qualities of relationships, his struggle to forgive, and his desire to finish life well. His meditations on heaven contribute to a beautiful book, worth reading more than once. Don’t rush through it, and don’t be in a hurry to figure out where the story is headed. Read slowly and savor.