four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
15-Mar-Apr-2005
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When the Reverend John Ames, 77, falls ill in 1956, he starts to contemplate what it means to live in a state of Christian grace. "Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration," he writes. "You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?"

Ames, a pastor in the small prairie town of Gilead, Iowa, begins to see his life with clarity while writing an extended letter to his young son. In this letter he meditates on issues including creation, human existence, and wisdom while writing a family history spanning the century between the Civil War and the Civil Rights era. His preacher grandfather, "a wild-haired, one-eyed, scrawny old fellow with a crooked beard," saw visions of an enslaved Christ. He then fought for abolition in Kansas, aided John Brown’s escape, and became a chaplain in the Union Army. This ancestral history influences Ames’s musings as he recounts his life’s joys and sorrows: two world wars, the death of his first wife and child, his beautiful marriage to a younger woman (mother of his six-year-old), and his attempt to reconcile his family heritage. "We live in the ruins of the lives of other generations," Ames writes, as he struggles to fill his grandfather’s shoes.

Father-son relationships repeat themselves when Jack (John Ames) Boughton, Ames’s namesake and the wayward son of his best friend, returns to Gilead. Jack tests Ames’s capacity to forgive—and the ability to reach peace with himself, his own son, and God as his life nears its end.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 247 pages. $23. ISBN: 0374153892

Critical Themes

Gilead, then and now: In the Bible, Gilead, an ancient city east of the Jordan River, was a place of healing ("Go up to Gilead, and take balm," Jeremiah 46:11)—and of war. Robinson applies these analogies to Ames and his namesake, who is in obvious need of some healing. But "[w]hether or not Gilead, Iowa, is the refuge Jack Boughton hopes for," notes the San Francisco Chronicle, Gilead "is a refuge for readers longing for that increasingly rare work of fiction, one that explores big ideas while telling a good story."

The preacher in American lit: We’ve heard from Arthur Dimmesdale in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Hazel Motes in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. Now we have Ames, youngest in a genealogical line of preachers. The New York Times Book Review notes that Ames, smarter and less hypocritical than other literary pastors, could have "possessed a bit more malice, avarice or lust." But Robinson, like her protagonist, "is a moralist without sounding stiff—just as Ames is a preacher without sounding preachy" (Oregonian).

Like father, like son: At its core, Gilead is a story of the joys, sorrows, and the need for forgiveness (deserved or not) in father-son relationships. In his letter to his young son, Ames recounts his bonding journey with his father to Kansas to find the grave of his pistol-wearing grandfather—a fiery, page-jumping creature. To further the father-son theme, Ames’ best friend and his prodigal son, Jack Jr., have striking parallels (if just a bit too coincidental) to his own family. Then there’s the ultimate father figure in Ames’s life: God.

Critical Insight

Entertainment Weekly 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Those with biblical knowledge (of Hagar, Ishmael, and Gilead itself and the balm to be found there) may luxuriate in this modestly magnificent book as a psalm worthy of study, a sermon of the loveliest profundity. But truly, a concordance isn’t necessary to read and reread Robinson’s new novel for the literary miracle that it is." Lisa Schwarzbaum

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Gilead is a beautiful work—demanding, grave and lucid—and is, if anything, more out of time than Robinson’s book of essays, suffused as it is with a Protestant bareness that sometimes recalls George Herbert (who is alluded to several times, along with John Donne) and sometimes the American religious spirit that produced Congregationalism and 19th-century Transcendentalism and those bareback religious riders Emerson, Thoreau and Melville. … Robinson’s words have a spiritual force that’s very rare in contemporary fiction …" James Wood

Washington Post 4.5 of 5 Stars
"[Gilead is] so serenely beautiful, and written in a prose so gravely measured and thoughtful, that one feels touched with grace just to read it. … Eventually one realizes that beyond a portrait of the human condition—prey to isolation and loneliness, ever needful of faith and love—Robinson has subtly introduced that great heartbreaking theme of American history, the often divisive, unfulfilled quest for social and racial justice." Michael Dirda

Charlotte Observer 4 of 5 Stars
"The world could use more letters to children, and more novels this wise and radiant." Kathryn Schwille

Chicago Sun-Times 4 of 5 Stars
"It is to Robinson’s credit that she is able to show the dimensions of this mindful and intelligent man whose observations, much in the way of St. Augustine, will present his son with a master plan for life." Mary Houlihan

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"Her mastery of the writing craft is exceeded only by her ability to humanize doctrine. … No matter what inkling we have about the universe and the hereafter, or lack thereof, Robinson succeeds in coaxing us to entertain Ames’s views with a kind of effortless literary grace." Sarah Cypher

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Readers will be delighted to know that Robinson has lost none of her edge when it comes to poetic prose. … One might also point out that it’s the little things—the main character’s love of baseball and fried-egg sandwiches, for instance—that ground this deeply reflective, yet accessible novel."
Olivia Boler

San Jose Mercury News 4 of 5 Stars
"[I]f I were a contemporary literature professor, or even a high school English teacher, I would add Gilead to my students’ reading list, because I believe Marilynne Robinson has written an amazing example of what it can mean to be human." Judith Neuman Beck

St. Petersburg Times 4 of 5 Stars
"There’s no question here that her new novel also dwells in the deep, with scarcely a frivolous bone its body. But rest assured that, as seen through the considered life of one man of the cloth, Gilead hardly reads like a sermon."
Ellen Emry Heltzel

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"It occurs to me that the angry polemics of the books of nonfiction and the gentle instruction of John Ames have more in common with the literary tradition of Jonathan Edwards and Ralph Waldo Emerson than of Nathaniel Hawthorne, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the young novelist who wrote Housekeeping."
Jane Vandenburgh

Chicago Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Where Housekeeping radiates youthful elan and near-nonchalance in response to life’s turmoil, Gilead speaks somewhat ruefully from age and fixity, and in that sense is an existential counterweight to the first novel. … We are left, ultimately, with a kind of sermonizing in Gilead that is more reaffirmative than it is bleak…" Art Winslow

San Diego Union-Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[Robinson’s] thought-possessed narrator captivates as a fully realized character, and the novel’s worldview does not impose itself but convincingly emerges from the narrator’s multivalent voice." Gregory Miller

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 2 of 5 Stars
"In the end, Gilead falters because of a one-dimensional main character and a bland, placid story line that is told rather than revealed." Robert Allen Papinchak

Critical Summary

Critics quietly pegged Robinson as a one-hit wonder when she kept anxious fans waiting two decades after publishing her award-winning Housekeeping. Gilead was well worth the wait. This extended letter from an aging pastor to his young son digs many levels deep. On the literal plane, Gilead recounts the history of a family of preachers on Iowa’s prairie. Philosophically, it delves into morality, racial justice, the decline of religion in American life, and the nature of faith in a beautiful, often undecipherable, world. Finally, on the personal level, it offers soul-searching lessons for fathers and sons.

Robinson writes with the gleaming, polished writing revealed in Housekeeping. In Gilead, the language is even more graceful and spare, recalling many of our nation’s most spiritual writers, from Herman Melville to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau (to whom Robinson claims she owes great literary debts). If John Ames is initially a little baffling, earnest but too introspective for some tastes, he soon draws readers into his world of storytelling, questioning, and meditation. In all realms, from recounting his journey to find his grandfather’s abandoned grave to his more philosophical probing of faith, he elevates the mundane into visionary life lessons. Other characters, including Ames’s fire-and-brimstone grandfather, are equally compelling. On the downside, Ames’s philosophizing can cross over into sermonizing. And the drama unfolds slowly—things do happen, but with a gentle suspense. "There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient," writes Ames. And there are just as many reasons to read this novel.