My book club’s selection for August was Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, a choice I was particularly excited about. Robinson is a noted author, winning many awards including the Pulitzer for Gilead. However, I was most excited to read something by her because of the impact her writing had had on Michel early in his grad school career. He’d read her novel, Housekeeping, and was blown away with the beauty and facility of her language. As such, I was looking forward to delving into her writing myself.
Gilead tells the story of three generations of Kansas ministers from the Civil War to the 20th century through the epistolary narration of the third generation, Rev. John Ames. Ames is a Congregationalist minister in his mid-to-late 70s, writing a letter to his young son, telling him his “begats”. It begins to wander when Jack, the prodigal son of Ames’ friend, Boughton, and Ames’ godson, returns to Gilead, bringing uncertainty and anxiety into Ames’ quiet life. Though not much happens action-wise, the novel presents a snapshot of life in small-town Kansas, the history of the family and their friends, and a meditation on the complications and goodness of life.
Now let’s be clear. Not much happens in this book. It is not driven by plot but by the memories, experiences, and emotions of its narrator, which works as it is a letter to his young son. And what a letter it is. Throughout all of the anecdotes, musings on the Bible, and advice for good living runs a strain of desperation and intense desire to teach his son everything Ames wants to pass on before he dies. He recognizes that his time with his young family is shorter than most fathers, but Ames takes great pains that that does not impede his ability to be a father. This letter, this novel, is a love letter of the highest order: a love letter from parent to child attempting to capture every important thing and emotion before it is too late. And it is beautiful to read: thoughtful, intimate, and universal.
Robinson has a knack for capturing on paper the truth of human experience, and her depiction of everyday human anxiety is breathtaking. The most exciting “event” in this novel is the return of Jack Boughton, and Ames’ letter takes a turn away from the family history to working through his own complicated feelings regarding his godson’s presence. He does not, nor has he ever, trusted Jack, and he alternated between warning his son, who adores the younger man, against him and apologizing for his seemingly unjustified condemnation of Jack. It presents a picture of Ames as a whole, multi-faceted human being and teaches both his son and the reader that it is ok to doubt. Doubt is not antithetical to goodness and living a good life.
Though sometimes it’s easy to get bogged down in some of Ames’ theological ruminations (he is a master digressor), what he and Robinson are really trying to show is just that: how to live a good life. It is more than just being religious or righteous or charitable. It is about being intentional in one’s actions, about following through on obligations, about being open to others’ and their challenges and stories. It is about not being afraid to make mistakes but learning from them. It is about caring for people and moments more than things. It is an appreciate for the simple beauty all around us. Robinson really seems to be giving us her own meditation on life.
She wrote another novel, Home, that depicts the exact same events as Gilead but from the perspective of Jack Boughton. I think it would be interesting to read that concurrently with Gilead and to see how Ames’ personal philosophies are both upended and confirmed in Jack. But that’s a project for another time. For now, I strongly encourage you to read Gilead, or any Marilynne Robinson for that matter, to see a first hand example of a master wordsmith at work.