Friday, April 17, 2015


Title:  Gilead
Author:  Marilynne Robinson
Publication Information:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2004. 247 pages.
ISBN:  0374153892 / 978-0374153892

Book Source:  I read this book as this month's selection for my local book club.

Opening Sentence:  "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."

Favorite Quote:  "But I've developed a great reputation for wisdom by ordering more books than I ever had time to read, and reading more books, by far, than I learned anything useful from, except, of course, that some very tedious gentlemen have written books. This is not a new insight, but the truth of it is something you have to experience to fully grasp."

The year is 1957. The place is the small town of Gilead, Iowa. The character is Reverend John Ames, suffering from heart disease and knowing that he may die before too long. Gilead is his epistle to his seven year old son. He writes, "I'm trying to make the best of our situation. That is, I'm trying to tell you things I might never have thought to tell you if I had brought you up myself, father and son, in the usual companionable way. When things are taking their ordinary course, it is hard to remember what matters. There are so many things you would never thing to tell anyone. And I believe they may be the things that mean the most to you, and that even your own child would have to know in order to know you well at all." At many points, he also writes that these are his son's "begats."

This book is part a dramatic story, part memoir (even if of a fictional character), part theology and part philosophy. Reading it the first time through, my reaction goes between feeling like I am reading a compilation of essays to being caught up in events being described. I feel like I am looking at a life lesson but that somehow I missed the lesson. I feel like I need to ponder over it and to perhaps re-read it to puzzle through John Ames' message. I want to know the other characters in a way other than through John Ames' eyes. Gilead leaves me thinking and with so many questions unanswered.

Why is a dying man investing his remaining time in documenting his life rather than living it? Why not spend the time with his wife and son, leaving his son with the memories of his father that are his rather than his father's writings about others? John Ames even comments on his own detachment, "This morning you came to me with a picture you had made that you wanted me to admire. I .... didn't look up right away. Your mother said, in the kindest, saddest voice, 'He doesn't hear you.' Not 'He didn't' but 'He doesn't.'" That statement is never explained. Why does John Ames not listen to his own son? What is the story behind his marriage - his second and to a woman considerable younger than he is?

A large part of the story has to do with John Ames' godson, Jack Boughton. He left Gilead under unfortunate circumstances and has now returned at least for a while. Slowly, the book does reveal why Jack Boughton left town. Slowly, you also see the friendship developing between Jack and John Ames' wife. Why does John Ames harbor such strong feelings towards Jack? The history, once revealed, alone does not seem to explain the intensity of the feelings. Also, if these writings are his son's legacy, why is Jack such a big part of them?

The Christian theology and references are abundant in this book. From the title Gilead to the idea of writing his son's "begats." From the varied Christian traditions represented to the discussions of the atheist Ludwig Feuerbach. This book definitely takes some work. I find myself rereading passages, doing research, and looking up references to further my understanding of the book for I clearly do not have the background to understand it. Is a more knowledgeable reader the target audience for this book? Is there a bigger philosophical lesson in the book tied to a deeper understanding of the references?

Gilead won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the 2005 National book Critics Circle Award. Since that time, Marilynne Robinson has written two companion books. Published in 2008, Home tells a concurred story, focusing on the Boughton family - Reverend Robert Boughton who is John Ames's best friend and Jack Boughton, who Ames' godson and the Robert's prodigal son returned home. Lila, published in 2014, picks up on the story of John Ames' much younger wife - her life before coming to Gilead and then her courtship and marriage to John Ames. I am looking forward to one day reading both companion books to see if they answer some of the question Gilead leaves unanswered.

I feel like I did not truly understand this book. Did I like it? Yes, I did for it leaves me thinking and I am engaged enough to want to understand.  Many unanswered questions remain, but the book feels complete. We hear only John Ames' perspective, but I am left caring about all of them and wanting to know the "why" behind their story and what happens to them? They may be fictional characters, but they leave a very real, lingering impact.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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