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Book Review: Gilead

By Joshua Seth Anderson
January 21, 2005

Gilead"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 you said, You aren't very old, as if that settled it." With these words, John Ames, an elderly Iowa pastor, begins a series of letters to his young son that make up the new novel, Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson.

The letters, which function something like diary entries, are to be given to Ames' son after his death. Full of rambling stories, introspective commentary and religious speculation, the letters are an exceptionally difficult way to craft a novel, especially considering the habits of the modern reader's quick and plot-driven ear. The success of this kind of novel depends almost entirely on the depth and quality of the letter writer's voice, and here Robinson has not let us down. In the character of John Ames, she has created a man whose tone is both strange and convincing-admirable in virtue and chillingly familiar in weakness.

Ames is the grandson of an abolitionist preacher who left his home state of Maine to join John Brown's bloody battle against slavery in Kansas and took up residence in the small town of Gilead, Iowa–an outpost on the border of Kansas that provided safe haven for freed slaves and those who fought their owners. Ames remembers his grandfather as a charismatic and driven man, "a wild-haired, one-eyed, scrawny old fellow with a crooked beard," a man who saw visions, fought in battles and preached his fiery sermons with a pistol in his belt. In one of his strongest memories, Ames writes, "Sometimes when I came home from school my mother would meet me at the back porch and whisper, 'The Lord is in the parlor.' Then I'd come creeping in my socks and I'd just glance in through the parlor door and there my grandfather would be, sitting on the left end of the sofa, looking attentive and sociable and gravely pleased. I would hear a remark from time to time, 'I see your point,' or 'I have often felt that way myself.'" In contrast, Ames' father, also a minister, is a quiet man driven to pacifism by his father's crusade. Recollections of the relationship between these two men dominate many of Ames' first letters to his son and, in this way, form the beginning of this book's subtle plot.

The letters themselves switch seamlessly between an old man's memories and regrets, pointed advice and theological reflection. Robinson's words often find a near-perfect tenor that makes the book both pleasurable and wise in a way that inter-relates the qualities–Ames' words are pleasing precisely because of their wisdom. "If there was one thing I should have learned...and did not learn," Ames writes to his seven-year-old son, "it was to control my temper. This is wisdom I should have attained a long time ago. Even now, when a flutter of my pulse makes me think of final things, I find myself losing my temper, because a drawer sticks or because I've misplaced my glasses. I tell you so that you can watch for this in yourself. A little too much anger, too often, or at the wrong time, can destroy more than you can imagine. Above all, mind what you say." Slowly, the character of Ames himself is revealed in his words–as he tells of the boxes of sermons in the attic that he has written over the years, "almost all of it [written] in the deepest hope and conviction," and the deep satisfaction he finds in performing baptisms and administering the Lord's Supper.

Ames' son is the fruit of his marriage to a woman more than thirty years his junior, and he tells the story of their courtship with quiet detail. A lonely old man who never thought to marry again after the death of his first wife in childbirth, Ames tells his son how seeing Lila for the first time in the back of the church changed everything. "Nothing had prepared me to find myself thinking day and night about a complete stranger, a woman much too young, probably a married woman–that was the first time in my life I ever felt I could be snatched out of my character, my calling, my reputation, as if they could just fall away like a dry was a foretaste of death, at least of dying. And why should that seem strange? 'Passion' is the word we use, after all."

Over time, Lila is baptized and joins the community of Gilead. Slowly, the love between Ames and the young woman grows. "She began to come to the house when some of the other women did, to take the curtains away to wash, to defrost the icebox. And then she started coming by herself to tend the gardens. She made them very fine and prosperous. And one evening when I saw her there, out by the wonderful roses, I said, 'How can I repay you for all of this?' And she said, 'You ought to marry me.' And I did."

One of the primary threads in Ames' letters is his sadness over the lateness of his marriage, the closeness of death and his newfound life that he must soon leave behind. In a moment of especially poignant bitterness, he writes to his son, "Just now I was listening to a song on the radio, standing there swaying to it a little, I guess, because your mother saw me from the hallway and she said, 'I could show you how to do that.' She came and she put her arms around me and put her head on my shoulder, and after a while she said, in the gentlest voice you could ever imagine, 'Why'd you have to be so damn old?' I ask myself the same question."

The plot of the book sharpens when the letters gradually move from the past to the present when Jack, Ames' prodigal godson, returns to town. Friendly affection between Jack and Lila begins to grow, causing Ames to wonder if their friendship will turn to love after his death. It is in these moments of jealously that Ames is most particularly moving–his aged envy is an evocative picture of the human condition: grasping always for that which we cannot hold, moving always toward the next world while still infatuated with this one.

Ultimately, it is this mutual wonder and mystery that is at the heart of Robinson's novel, as she points out how a quiet life like that of John Ames can hold private and ultimately unknowable joy and sadness and, implicitly, how this also might be true for each of us. We are all, each of us, she seems to be saying, separate and mysterious, even to those whom we love and live among. As Ames puts it, "In every important way we are such secrets from each other...we take fortuitous resemblances among us to be actual likeness, because those around us have also fallen heir to the same customs, trade in the same coin, acknowledge, more or less, the same notions of decency and sanity. But all that really just allows us to coexist with the inviolable, untraversable, and utterly vast spaces between us."

This is at once a terrifying and wondrous idea, and its implications are inestimable. For if, as Robinson seems to be saying, there is a mystery which is at the heart of human relations and we humans are the imagio dei, might this not also hint at the mystery which is found in the triune God, who is always both separate and one? Robinson does not quote Calvin here, but she might have for he said it best, writing, "Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves...[and] which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern."

Gilead is certainly one of the most important novels of the past year–it has already been named to several prominent top ten lists for 2004 and will likely merit consideration for the national awards in fiction. If Robinson wins one of the awards, it will not be for usual reasons, for this novel lacks a captivating plot and breaks many of the elementary rules of fiction with its wandering memories and philosophical diversions. Indeed, if Gilead is a successful and major novel, as I believe it is, it is because of the quality and depth of the ideas presented, ideas woven into a story that is wondrously deceptive in its simplicity.

Masquerading as a story of an old man waiting to die, Gilead explores with a sure hand the goodness of God's intention in all of creation and the sureness of its redemption. There is sadness here, but always mixed with joy. Feeling his death coming near, Ames closes his long letter simply, and ultimately, without regret. "Your mother seems to want every supper to be my favorite supper. There is often meat loaf, and always come in reeking of the evening air, with your eyes bright and your cheeks and fingers pink and cold, too beautiful in the candlelight for my old eyes. The dark seems to make us speak softly, like gentle conspirators. Your mother says the grace and butters the bread.... There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient." Then, finally, "I'll pray that you grow up a brave man in a brave country.... I'll pray, and then I'll sleep."