Marilynne Robinson

"Gilead"

(Reviewed by Nora Kathleen Reilly JUN 4, 2006)

"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. And you put your hand in my hand and said, You aren't very old, as if that settled it."

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Gilead is Marilynne Robinson’s long awaited second novel, published twenty-three years after her first novel, Housekeeping.  Much has been made of the fact that over two decades passed before Ms. Robinson wrote another novel-length work of fiction, and in the months after Gilead’s publication in 2004, you could almost hear a collective "finally!" from critics and the public alike.  It seemed like everyone had been waiting all these years to hear from the author whose debut novel won (are you ready?) the Ernest Hemingway Foundation award for the best first novel from PEN American Center, a PEN/Faulkner fiction award nomination, the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and a Pulitzer Prize nomination.

But it’s not as if she hadn’t been writing at all.  In the years after publishing Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson went on to publish two works of non-fiction, contributed numerous articles and stories to various publications, and still teaches at the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop. 

Gilead, which won numerous awards itself, most notably the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2005, was well worth the wait. 

To put it simply, Gilead is a letter from a father to his son, and, without a doubt, it will be the loveliest letter you’ll ever read. 

John Ames, a minister in a small town in Iowa, is nearing the end of his life. His doctor tells him that he doesn’t have much time, so in an attempt to gather and impart all of the wisdom of a lifetime to his seven-year-old son before he passes on, he decides to compose a letter of sorts. 

I say “of sorts” because Gilead doesn’t feel like a letter.  You almost forget that he is actually writing this to his son, and there are times when the narrator does as well.

It is more a gathering of observations, some snippet length and some much longer, collected in the modest hope that his experiences will be useful to his son one day. 
 
The concept itself is engaging and, (dare I say it?), endearing.  And John Ames, as a character, possesses a level of insight and clarity of voice unparalleled in recent American fiction.  These two things alone would be enough to carry any novel, but Gilead’s reach is far greater.  It is a man’s impressions of the world, of the wonder all living things, of our relation to God and our loved ones.

Marilynne Robinson’s writing is stunning in its precision.  I felt that I became a better reader after reading Gilead.  The syntax of even the very first sentence will bring you to a halt, make you read it over again, and decide for you the pace at which you will read and digest this novel.  In a world where events are reported online within minutes and the blogosphere rules, her words seem plucked out of chaos and distilled to an essential level; Gilead seems like the very essence of a man’s life. 

But it’s not just any man’s life; John Ames cuts a unique silhouette.  His father and grandfather were both preachers in the same town, and he heard the calling to a religious life early on.  But even though John Ames has seldom ventured outside of his small corner of Iowa, his world is anything but small.  As a minister, it is his responsibility to try to answer the big questions: Where do we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going? 

The years he has spent in contemplation of the nature of existence lends him a certain authority, and I felt peculiarly honored, as morose as that may sound, to be present as he is forced to answer these questions for himself.  

Gilead is an experience bordering on the divine; it feels like John Ames is delivering the best sermon of his life and you are the only one sitting in the church.  Any reader, no matter what their religious or spiritual inclination, will enjoy joining John Ames as he makes peace with history, recaptures haunting memories, and expounds upon the world around him as each passing moment reveals a larger piece of the strange and beautiful mystery of life.   

  • Amazon readers rating: from 310 reviews


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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

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About the Author:

Marilynne RobinsonMarilynne Robinson was born in 1947 in Sandpoint, Idaho, where she grew up and attended high school. She received a B.A. from Brown University in 1966 and a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Washington in 1977. While writing her dissertation, Robinson began work on her first novel, which is now regarded as an American classic.

She has been writer-in-residence or visiting professor at numerous universities, including the University of Kent, Amherst, and the University of Massachusetts. She has been teaching at the Iowa Writers' Workshop since 1991.

In 1997, she received a Strauss Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a five-year stipend totaling a quarter of a million dollars that was established to enable writers to focus entirely on their work without requiring other employment. The University of Iowa granted her a five-year leave of absence, but after 18 months, Robinson turned down the remainder of the stipend to return to teaching in the Iowa Writers' Workshop.

Robinson lives in Iowa City, Iowa, with her family.

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