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Marilynne Robinson: Gilead

This is the first novel in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy, so-called because it is set in the (fictitious) town of Gilead, Iowa, named after the biblical Gilead. The book consists of a long letter by John Ames, third in a line of Christian ministers, writing to his not quite seven year old son. Ames is seventy-seven years old and has a heart problem, so is concerned that he might die soon. He has felt unable to talk to his son so is writing down what he needs to say. (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.) Ames had been married when young. His wife, Louisa, died in childbirth, as did the baby, Angeline. He had remained single since then, till he met Lila. She helped in various ways and then, when he asked how he could repay her, she suggested that he marry her and he did. They seem to have been happy and welcomed the birth of a son.

Ames tells not only his story but the story of his father and grandfather, as well as, to some degree, the story of his friend, the Presbyterian minister, Robert Boughton. (He is always referred to as Boughton, just as he, Boughton always calls and refers to John Ames as Ames. Indeed, names are fairly sparse in this book. Lila is only referred to by name once (and not by her husband) and the son does not seem to have a name, either. We only know Boughton’s first name from the name of his grandson (and from the next book in the Gilead trilogy)). Ames’ grandfather came to Kansas as part of the Free-Soilers, in order to help Kansas Territory become a free state. Ames’ father is certain that his father committed one or more acts of violence. He certainly carried out guerrilla-style actions with John Brown and, indeed, it seems that Gilead might have partially owed its existence as a hide-out for Brown and his men. The grandfather served in the Civil War as a chaplain but urged people to fight for the Union side. All of this had a profound influence on both men, as John Ames reports to his son. When John Ames was young, his grandfather disappeared, presumably to Kansas, to become an itinerant preacher. Father and son had had a falling-out just before and Ames’ father feels regretful about this. He finally finds out where his father had been and where he had died – a remote place in Kansas – and decides that he must got here, even though he could not afford to do so. John Ames asks to accompany his father. Their difficult journey and what they found clearly has had an effect on the younger man even sixty-five years later.

What makes this book so interesting is John Ames’ struggle with his faith, his role as a minister and the legacy of his grandfather. He deals with (and struggles with) a host of problems. One of the problems that he finds intractable concerns Boughton’s son Jack. To his great surprise, Boughton had named the boy John Ames Boughton, though he was always called Jack. Jack turns out to wilful and badly-behaved and, indeed, still is. (We will see more of this in the next book in the Gilead trilogy, Home.) He was a petty criminal and behaved badly much of life. He had got the daughter of a poor family pregnant and then essentially abandoned her, determined neither to marry her nor to support her and her child. Boughton and his wife (who had died five years before this books starts) had helped out, but were resented and, when the boy got ill from an infection, they were too late to save him. Jack had subsequently disappeared and no-one knew were he was, to his father’s chagrin. The six other children had all scattered but the unmarried daughter, Glory, had returned to look after her father. At the beginning of the book, Jack returns and, eventually, Jack and John Ames talk, but Ames still distrusts him, particularly when he learns of Jack’s behaviour while he has been away. This is one struggle he will never fully resolve.

Ames has other concerns. The people are poor and face all sorts of difficulties. He frequently helps out the poor and also acts as a part-time handyman and doctor, when necessary. His grandfather had gone further, giving away many of their assets, to his wife’s disgust. (She frequently hid money to keep him from giving it away.) Ames has a brother Edward and he had looked up to him but is saddened when Edward gives up his faith. (The belief was general that he would be a great preacher. So the congregation took up collections to put him in college and then to send him to Germany. And he came back an atheist.) He is also concerned that his father might have had doubts about his faith. Indeed, he just cannot understand how anyone cannot believe in God.

Ames is no saint but he is clearly a very, good and decent man and a pragmatic Christian. He sums up his basic philosophy as One great benefit of a religious vocation is that it helps you concentrate. It gives you a good basic sense of what is being asked of you and also what you might as well ignore. If I have any wisdom to offer, this is a fair part of it. Giving a blessing is The sensation is of really knowing a creature, I mean really feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time and clearly being in touch with people and, indeed, nature is very important to him. He very much enjoys the natural world and enjoys people and it is this that brings him contentment. He enjoys a good joke, as he himself admits. Indeed, while struggling with the travails of the world, he does have a joie de vivre and he is in no doubt that his joy is enhanced by his faith, indeed could not exist without his faith.

Quality novels about Christian faith are fairly rare in the twenty-first century. Even in earlier times, they tended to be more the preserve of Catholics, such as Bernanos and Mauriac. It is therefore of considerable interest to the intelligent reader to find a novel that seriously discusses the issue, without being dogmatic and/or proselytising. While this book is a serious discussion of faith, it is much more. John Ames is a man who has examined life in many ways, both his own issues – his grandfather, father and brother but also his loneliness after the death of his wife and daughter, his relationship with Lila and his relationship with his parishioners, many of whom are hard up. But he also looks at the broader picture – nature, joy of life, what a man should do to live a fulfilling and worthwhile life and, of course, how to deal with the problems that life invariably and often unexpectedly throws at us. Along with her first book, this will remain a classic of modern US literature.

Publishing history

First published 2004 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux