Note: This article was originally published on reformation21 in August of 2005.
Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson (New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 2004)
Carrying biblical overtones and set in the rural Iowa town of Gilead, Marilynne Robinson's second novel is the winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction—and with good reason. In a spare prose that rings with psychological realism and moral depth, Marilynne Robinson depicts what William Wordsworth would call a "spot of time," and in it captures something of the beauty and anxiety of the human condition. For Wordsworth, a "spot of time" was one of those simple events that incarnates a profound human experience. So it is with Gilead; in it, Robinson gives voice to the ache and joy of human families.
Gilead is the account of the 76 year-old Rev. John Ames as he writes a letter to his six year old son. Ames is the narrator, and the novel is his letter. In this "spot of time" at the end of John Ames's life, he telescopes many spots of time in an attempt to express who he is to his son. It is 1956 in Gilead, Iowa, and Ames remembers two generations of preachers—his father and grandfather—and looks to the future his son will see. John Ames had been married in his last year at seminary, but his wife died in childbirth. Later, he married again and now, late in life, has a young son. Ames wishes to give something of himself to a boy who may never know his dad as an adult. "If you remember me at all," he writes to his son, "you may find me explained a little by what I am telling you" (p. 71).
Even at 76 and after a hard life "in a shabby little town" (p. 52), John Ames can see the wonder in God's world, and attempts to help his son see it too. "I'd never have believed I'd see a wife of mine doting on a child of mine," he writes.
"It still amazes me every time I think of it. I'm writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you've done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God's grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle" (p. 52).
The reader comes to know and respect this man whose voice as the narrator carries everything in the novel.
Robinson's prose is graceful and spare, Ames's voice that of a thoughtful man steeped in the King James Scriptures and chiseled by seventy four of his seventy six years of life lived in rural Iowa through two world wars and the Great Depression. At one point he calculates for his son how many sermons he must have preached in Gilead over the years:
Say, fifty sermons a year for forty-five years, not counting funerals and so on, of which there have been a great many. Two thousand two hundred and fifty. If they average thirty pages, that's sixty-seven thousand five hundred pages. Can that be right? I guess it is. I write in a small hand, too, as you know by now. Say three hundred pages make a volume. Then I've written two hundred twenty-five books, which puts me up there with Augustine and Calvin for quantity (p. 19).
Ames's voice rings true, his letter an articulation of who he is--his word an extension of his person. At the same time, Ames selects what he wishes to tell his son, creating an impression that the boy might not have made otherwise. The effect is to telescope the past into the future, retrospect creating prospect. And is this not the way life is? Do we not stand in the shadow (and grace) of our parents, even as we live our own lives? And do not parents struggle with how to share their heritage with their children while still letting them become the people God made them to be? And who better to capture the nexus of the generations, their joys and their sorrows, than an old man with death undoubtedly not far away writing to a young boy?
No doubt life was unadorned in Gilead, and it certainly was not without its family conflicts. Before he was sixteen years old and living in Maine, John Ames's grandfather had a vision of the Lord in chains, and this sent him to Kansas as an abolitionist. Wounded in Civil War action, Ames's grandfather had only one good eye, but he transfixed everyone with it. Ames's father, on the other hand, was an ardent pacifist who never made peace with his father before he died. Ames tells the tale of his father taking him (walking every step of the way) to Kansas to find his father's grave. A month it took, and it became one of the markers in life, like the stones in the River Jordan the Israelites placed (Josh. 4:1-24). Another concern for John Ames even as he writes his letter is the return to Gilead of John Ames Broughton, Ames's namesake and the prodigal son of his best friend. John Ames Broughton comes back to Gilead with a past, and Ames worries that he is spending too much time with his young wife and son. In these family and friend relationships, Robinson pulls the future through the past, just as we live the future influenced for good and ill by the past. T. S. Eliot put it this way:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time (Four Quartets).
Gilead brings the Bible to bear quietly on our lives—or better put, it pulls our lives through the Bible. "There is a balm in Gilead," the hymn writer tells us, and Jeremiah wonders if that is still the case (Jer. 8:22). Writing his letter to his son is balm for John Ames, even in the little town where people have so little, even where he learns something of what he calls "holy poverty" (p. 31). In this novel, the prodigal son is to be found in John Ames Broughton and, true to the biblical parable, Robinson sees the son through the father. "I can tell you this," Ames writes, "that if I'd married some rosy dame and she had given me ten children and they had each given me ten grandchildren, I'd leave them all, on Christmas Eve, on the coldest night of the world, and walk a thousand miles just for the sight of your face, your mother's face" (p. 237). Job is here, for the influenza kills many townsfolk before penicillin became available; two world wars ravage the community; and the Great Depression grinds the "Gileadites" down. Churches close, and families crumble. Christ is here too, of course, for John Ames carried the burdens of his parishioners for decades—and now wishes to carry his son as a lamb on his shoulders, as it were, into Canaan.
Gilead is a spot of time, to be sure. It is also a "spot of grace." In John Ames's words about his long life, "It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance—for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light" (p. 245). John Ames attempts to "breathe" grace on his son's life, and he does so for those of us who pick up the letter and read it over his shoulder. Again, Eliot expressed a similar feeling:
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from (Four Quartets).
Gilead is a book of beginnings in endings. In chiseled prose and with moral grace, it becomes a "spot of time" for the reader. John Ames becomes "family."
Michael Travers was professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University until his death in 2017. He also served as associate provost, associate dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, and chair of the Division of Language and Literature.
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