In the Bible "
Gilead" means the hill of testimony or witness. In
Marilynne Robinson's 2004 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Gilead is a fictional
circa 1957. While I am not versed in the geography and topography of the state
of Iowa , I
have been led to believe that there are very few hills or mounds therefore one
must presume at the onset of the book that Robinson is focused on the theme of
testimony and witness rather than vertical geological formations. This isn't a
particularly important observation, but it will help you get settled into the
The novel is essentially an extended letter from John Ames, an aging third-generation Congregationalist preacher, to his infant son. Ames, who married and had children rather late in life has been diagnosed with an unnamed heart condition and he feels the need to put pen to paper in order that his young son can shed some light on the history of the frontier town of Gilead and how it was intertwined in the relationship between his visionary (and often militant) abolitionist grandfather and his ardently pacifist father during the time of the Civil War. While the letter is clearly addressed to his son, one cannot help but pity
as he struggles to
reconcile his love for both his father and grandfather despite their
irreconcilable differences. Ames
's writes the letter (over the course of
several weeks, one presumes), events in his own life become more interesting
when Jack Boughton the son of a close family friend returns after many years
away. Ames 's
reticence prevents him from writing why this return is of such import, but it's
plainly apparent that Boughton's reappearance has raised serious philosophical
questions. After a prolonged theological debate with himself, Ames finally reveals the long sordid history
of Jack Boughton and the events that have lead him back to town. Ames
Robinson sets a slow, easy pace and a austere prairie town tone and maintains it for the duration of the novel. It's a pot of stew simmering on a country kitchen. The action in the novel is subtle, without the usual dramatics (not even a thunderstorm on the horizon).
Gilead strolls along at an even
pace, stopping often to smell the flowers or admire the pitching arm of a local
boy. If a neighbor happens to invite this novel in for tea, it wouldn't object
and the visit would be pleasant enough. But there is much laying under that
thick layer of contentment. It is a testament to Robinson's restraint as an
author that she allows them to resolve themselves in a series of stoic
It is also a confession of sorts for
himself as he
recounts his own failings and tries to reconcile the actions of his hardline
father and grandfather. In that sense, Ames
seems to be the milquetoast of his family line, tending toward compromise and
understanding. Ames ,
far more intellectually and metaphysically inclined preacher than his father
and grandfather feels inadequate in relation to their convictions. Jack
Boughton puts the preacher's convictions on trial when he seeks spiritual
guidance from the man who has yet found the courage to forgive him his past
is a theological treatise on the nature of love, death, forgiveness and faith.
seems to love his own son unconditionally, there is another: John Ames (Jack)
Boughton, the proverbial prodigal son returned. In the letter Ames wrestles with his own nature and
meditates on his own relationship with Jack. In an effort to be honest with his
son, Ames is
forced to honest with himself about his relationship with his godson.
struggles with the notion of faith: Ames
"Do you ever wonder why American Christianity always seems to wait for the real thinking to be done elsewhere?"
About the Reviewer:
Ryan St. Onge is a Canadian citizen lost
somewhere in Asia, which is a terrible place
to be lost if you like reading English books.
He gets by via second hand bookstores, and his Kindle. If given the choice (though he rarely is) he
prefers literary fiction and non-fiction.
Oh yeah… and zombies. Ryan has
been an avid reader of zombie lore for over 20 years. That’s either awesome or utterly sad. You can choose. And if you want to see what else Ryan has
been reading, you can visit his blog, Reading in Taiwan.