Book Review: Gilead

Gilead is lyrical, sweet, and haunting; a feat that can only be achieved by one of the best writers of our time.

In 1981 Marilynne Robinson wrote Housekeeping: A Novel, which went on to win the PEN/Hemingway Award. Twenty-five years later we have another sublimely written fiction work from Robinson with Gilead.

As Gilead begins, John Ames is 76 in 1956 and writing a letter to his young son, age seven. Ames will narrate throughout the book, not with a stiff recollection of personal advice, but from his years as a preacher. He will relate his reminiscences to the present day as he describes his father, grandfather, and best friend. The combination of Christian doctrine and life views from an imperfect man provide added humbleness and interest to the text.

Ames begins the letter simply to give his son advice, as he is considerably older than his wife and in poor health. As a small town preacher Ames lacks monetary wealth, but is filled with a wisdom and patience many wish they could achieve. The story begins slowly, both in the narrative pattern of the main character and in pace of the events. However, soon the reader is swept up in Robinson’s poetic writing style where they quickly find themselves nearing the end of this sweetly told tale.

Deeply part of the story is Ames lifelong friendship with “old Boughton,” a preacher of the Presbyterian faith. Boughton has many children, and seems to have the family life that for many years eluded Ames, as his first wife died in childbirth and the baby not long after. Ames lived for many years as a bachelor preacher, getting domestic help occasionally and home cooked meals from the generous ladies in town. One of these women, considerably younger than Ames, will become his wife as Ames reaches his late 60s. In “old Boughton” Ames has a cherished friendship. But it is Boughton’s favorite child, John Ames Boughton, named after Ames, which becomes a source of irritation and negativity as Ames tries to continue his letter to his son. John (Jack) Boughton comes back to Gilead after a long absence, making Ames wonder what he could be up to and if his dire influence will affect Ames wife and son after his death. The younger Boughton was a bad kid, full of mischief and wrongdoings that continued long into his adulthood. Ames knows as a preacher and Christian he should love young Boughton for the person he is, but he struggles, which makes him more assessable and real to the reader.

It is in including the history of Gilead that Robinson brings in the characters of Ames, father and grandfather, who were also preachers. Ames writes of the estranged relationship between the two men after Ames grandfather left Gilead to march for abolition. It is fitting that in a letter to his son he will try and explain the tension that existed between Ames own father and grandfather, since Ames is likely to pass on early in his son’s life, thereby eliminating the usual struggles of confronting one’s father as they enter adulthood. Ames own patient and even keeled nature is instead a perfect reflection to the town of Gilead itself. It is easy to see why Robinson won the Pulitzer for this brilliantly told story.

Book purchased by reviewer.

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