GAN Quest: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

The workings of the human heart…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

gileadWhen John Ames learns he doesn’t have much longer to live, he takes up his pen to write to his young son, to tell him some of the things he would have liked to tell him in person as he grew up. Ames is old, in his 70s, and his son is the product of a late second marriage, an unexpected second blooming of love for a man who had spent most of his life alone following the death in childbirth of his first wife and their daughter. As Ames writes, it is 1956, so his personal recollections take him back to the end of the previous century, but his knowledge of his family history allows him to go back a few decades further, to the Civil War and the struggle for the abolition of slavery.

The small town of Gilead in Iowa was founded by abolitionists, its main reason for existence in those early days to help the cause, and to assist in providing safe passage for escaped slaves heading towards the free states. Ames is the third generation of pastors in his family. His grandfather was a passionate abolitionist, willing to fight the fight with guns as much as with prayer, who ‘preached his people into war’. Ames’ father, on the other hand, was a Christian pacifist, horrified in his own time at the celebration of war during WW1, at the kind of patriotic fervour that drove the young men to go off to kill or die. As Ames gradually reveals the history of these two men, it is clear that he has been influenced by both; that their divisions perhaps have led him to be more introspective and questioning of his beliefs.

I am also inclined to overuse the word ‘old’, which actually has less to do with age, as it seems to me, than it does with familiarity. It sets a thing apart as something regarded with a modest, habitual affection. Sometimes it suggests haplessness or vulnerability. I say ‘old Boughton’, I say ‘this shabby old town’, and I mean that they are very near my heart.

And it’s Ames’ beliefs that are at the heart of the book. This is a man whose faith is thoughtful and profound, based on his lifelong study of the scriptures. He’s a bit touchy when people assume he became a pastor simply because his father and grandfather were – he’s keen to point out that his vocation is personal, founded on his relationship with God and nothing else. But he has made an effort to understand what brings people to atheism, too, partly because his brother gave up his religion as a young man, and partly because Ames sees the rise of atheism in the society around him. Much of his letter to his son is an explanation of his own faith, and an encouragement to him not to be swayed by the doubts and disbelief of others.

I was struck by the way the light felt that afternoon. I have paid a good deal of attention to light, but no one could begin to do it justice. There was the feeling of a weight of light – pressing the damp out of the grass and pressing the smell of sour old sap out of the boards on the porch floor and burdening even the trees a little as a late snow would do. It was the kind of light that rests on your shoulders the way a cat lies on your lap. So familiar.

I must say I was rather put off reading this book by some reviews and comments from a few people who suggested that it’s full of Biblical references and theology that would make it hard to understand for someone without a solid grounding in the Bible. As a lifelong atheist, brought up that way, there can be few people out there with less knowledge of the Bible or of the intricacies of the beliefs of all the different Christian churches than I, so for the benefit of others I’d like to say that’s total nonsense. At every step of the way, Robinson makes crystal clear the basis of whatever aspect of faith she is discussing. The possible exception is the idea of whether predestination exists, though even there, it’s quite straightforward to understand Ames’ position on the subject – which is primarily that he doesn’t know the answer, and gets fed up with atheists using the question as some kind of weapon. Perhaps there are nuances that I missed that would be picked up by people better versed in the Bible, but certainly I had no feeling of ‘missing’ anything. It seemed to me that Ames’ unshakeable faith is based as much on his love of the world and of humanity, as on obscure theological points.

I might seem to be comparing something great and holy with a minor and ordinary thing, that is, love of God with mortal love. But I just don’t see them as separate things at all. If we can be divinely fed with a morsel and divinely blessed with a touch, then the terrible pleasure we find in a particular face can certainly instruct us in the nature of the very grandest love. I devoutly believe this to be true. I remember in those days loving God for the existence of love and being grateful to God for the existence of gratitude, right down in the depths of my misery.

In the second half of the book, a young man returns to the town, the son of Ames’ oldest friend, the Presbyterian minister Boughton. This young man is called John Ames Boughton, a well-intentioned gesture from the elder Boughton which Ames has always rather resented. In fact, he resents everything to do with this young man, who has proved to be a disappointment throughout his life. Ames’ feelings about him are mixed with his sorrow for his lost daughter and for his brother’s atheism, and Ames himself is rather confused about why he feels so antagonistic towards the younger man. Now Ames is dying, and young Boughton seems to be forming a bond with his much younger wife, Lila, and his son. The latter part of the book is a very moving account of Ames wrestling with his own feelings and trying to come to a better understanding of the young man.

Marilynne Robinson
Marilynne Robinson

There is very little plot in this book, which is normally a real no-no for me. But somehow I found Ames’ story totally absorbing and full of emotional truth – a quiet account of an ordinary man who loves his family, striving to be good in his heart, struggling to see God’s will, accepting the mystery at the heart of faith. It reminded me of the way Colm Tóibín writes – rather plain and understated, but full of beauty and empathy for human frailties. But for all the emotionalism, there’s humour in there, too – wonderfully crafted set-pieces that in their own way shed more light on all the idiosyncrasies of human nature. Yes, it’s about faith, and about racial inequality to some degree, but fundamentally it’s about humanity and the search for a redemption that can come only through a deeper understanding of the workings of the human heart. A lovely book.

Well, I can imagine him beyond the world, looking back at me with an amazement of realisation – “This is why we have lived this life!” There are a thousand, thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.

* * * * * * *


So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post…

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

us flagAchieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

us flagYes, it shows the importance of the Protestant faith in the history and making of the US, and casts a gentle light on the on-going racial divides at the time in which it’s set.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

us flagI’m not sure about this one – certainly the race theme has been addressed frequently. But the dealing with it through an examination of faith, and the style of telling it in the form of a long letter to the future felt innovative to me, so I’m saying – achieved.

Must be superbly written.

us flagYes, and I hope the quotes I have chosen give an idea of the soft beauty of the writing.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

white_flagThere’s a big part of me that would like to say yes to this, because it seems to this outsider that faith and race are the two defining aspects of what makes the US what it is. But the small town setting narrows the focus a little too much, so reluctantly I have to say – not achieved. I’m open to persuasion though…

* * * * * * *

So not The Great American Novel but, with 5 stars and 4 GAN flags, I’m delighted to declare this…

A Great American Novel.

* * * * * * *


43 thoughts on “GAN Quest: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

  1. So glad you enjoyed this, FictionFan. I’ve often found that those personal stories are so much better at conveying the American (or British, or Japanese, or Sumatran, or…..) experience than are larger, meta-books. In real life, those larger movements, trends, etc.. impact everyone in different ways, so I like to see them reflected that way in fiction.

    • Yes, I agree – if there aren’t strong characters in a book, I’d really rather read non-fiction for the politics etc. The characters are what bring the books to the human level, and let the reader walk that mile in someone else’s shoes. This one did that excellently… 🙂

  2. This sounds incredible. The quotes you’ve pulled have me totally convinced. I have this in the TBR, clearly I need to get to it soon. As a fellow non-faith type I’m glad I won’t be alienated from the story.

    • Aren’t the quotes great? I loved her writing style and rather fell in love with the Rev. Ames. I always enjoy reading about faith even though I’m an old cynic – it’s such an important part of the world, and I must say Robinson handles it beautifully. It doesn’t feel at all preachy or dogmatic – it’s just one aspect of Ames’ personality. A lovely, moving book – I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. 🙂

  3. This does indeed sound like a beautiful book, although certainly not one I would have naturally been drawn to. I shall keep it in mind for when I fancy a more reflective read. I find faith quite interesting (life-long atheist myself also) so it might be one I pick up at some point. Great review, FF, I really got a sense of humanity of the book from this 🙂

    • I’m always intrigued by faith too, even though I don’t share it, and I must say Robinson handles it wonderfully in this one – it doesn’t feel preachy at all. Yes, indeed, it’s the humanity that makes this one so special… and the gorgeous writing. It’s not flamboyant, but she creates some lovely pictures… 🙂

    • To be honest, it was really while writing the review that I made the connection – I realised I was saying all the same kind of things I normally say about Toibin. Cleo’s just commented that “sometimes, in the hands of a good writer the pleasure is in the writing and the ideas alone” and I think that’s true of both these writers.

  4. I haven’t read this one, but the quotes you pulled are most interesting. I especially love “the kind of light that rests on your shoulders the way a cat lies on your lap. So familiar.” What a beautiful thought!
    As someone raised Catholic right from the cradle, I don’t think the religious aspects would put me off this book. Nor, probably, would they be things to draw me in. Still, it seems like a lovely piece of writing, and it’s achieved 4 of your 5 criteria, so perhaps I need to add it to my TBR. After the holidays, of course!

    • I loved that quote so much – it’s so expressive. I guess we’ve all known days when the light was like that, but never put it into words. Beautiful!
      I’m sure knowing a little more about the Bible will mean you get even more out of this, and I didn’t feel she was dogmatically promoting any particular religious angle, if you know what I mean. It was all about faith rather than about one particular church. It is a lovely book, that I think you might enjoy if you ever get time to read it… 🙂

  5. This isn’t the type of book I’d usually chose but I have to say I really do like those quotes you chose and the fact you enjoyed it so much despite the lack of any real plot – sometimes, in the hands of a good writer the pleasure is in the writing and the ideas alone

    • That’s exactly right, Cleo, thank you – that expresses beautifully what I felt about it! It wouldn’t be the kind of thing I’d normally pick up either, but was recommended by a few people for the GAN Quest, and I’m very glad I read it. Given that you enjoyed Toibin, I suspect you’d like this too… if you could ever find time to read it!! 😉

    • I think sometimes it just depends when you read a book. I’d just struggled through Miby Dick, so this one was such a refreshing change! I really want to read some of her other stuff over this next year… 🙂

    • Definitely deserves a high spot on the TBR! I’m glad too – after a few less than stellar reads in the Great American Novel Quest, this one has reinspired my enthusiasm. And I can’t wait to read more of her stuff too… 🙂

    • Normally it would have that effect on me too, but the writing and characterisation is so good and it gives a real perspective on the place and time, which all made up for there not being a huge amount of plot…

      • I’m thinking of some conceptual lit I read in grad school in which NOTHING happens–maybe a character walks around all day thinking about the frailty of life–and then then book would end. Not the kind of stuff that made you think, like Waiting for Godot, either.

  6. Gilead is one of the books which has a long term place on my bookshelves. I love Marilynne Robinson’s writing – the way she conveys quiet wonder in the world and the wisdom that underlies her characters’ journeys toward being honest and true with themselves and each other. For me, her writing gives a sense of concepts such as grace, the sacred and divine, which are beyond religion and address transcendent aspects of the human experience. I have enjoyed each of Robinson’s novels and would like to read some of her essays and commentary some time.

    • Lovely comment, underrunner – you’ve summed up the beauty of the book perfectly. Yes, although it is overtly about faith, for me it was much more about the humanity of the character of John Ames, whom I grew to love. And again you’re right – the emotional side of it is much more about a universal experience rather than a narrow religious one. I’m very much looking forward to reading her other books…

  7. I’m so glad you liked this! I think it’s one of the best expressions of Christian faith in fiction that I’ve read and it’s nice to hear that it’s accessible to a broad audience. I’ve gone on to read some others by Robinson and though this is her best, I’ve enjoyed some of her essays as well and “Lila” is on my list to read this year.

    • I though it was a truly lovely book – I fell a little in love with John Ames, I must admit! Yes, I had no problems with understanding it at all – while she does talk about a lot of different aspects of faith, she always manages to make it clear without seeming to “info-dump” – the mark of true skill! I’m really looking forward to reading more of her stuff now – I think I’ll probably read Lila next too…

  8. I enjoyed your review. I have just reviewed Gilead, but being new to blogging my review was pretty short. It was a lovely book, an elegy to another world really. As you say, nothing happens in it, but it keeps your interest. You have to be in the frame of mind for it though.

    • Welcome to blogging, Cynthia! Hope you get a lot of pleasure out of it – it’s a great little community. Yes, I’m not usually one for books where so little happens but I loved the writing in this one, and especially the characterisation which I thought was great. I do tend to go on a bit though… 😉 I’m just popping over to read your review now…

      • Thanks!I’d like to make my posts longer, it’s getting the time. I’m still getting the hang of the technology side of things, I’m pretty hopeless with that. My daughter helped me to insert photo! Next one I hopefully can do myself. Thanks for the follow.:)

        • To be honest, I suspect visitors prefer shorter posts – I constantly struggle to keep mine down to a bearable length but I let myself go a bit with classics or factual books… 😉 Haha! How is it the younger generation know how to do all these things? It took me ages to work out how to do everything. 🙂

  9. I hope you don’t mind me commenting on older reviews like this…. but I read this last fall and decided I had to following up with the two sequels to this one. I read them both in January and the second book (Home) was my favorite of the three, followed by the third (Lila). They’re not my usual kind of book, but her writing is so beautiful.

    • No! I love getting comments on older reviews – it reminds me of how much I enjoyed (or didn’t!) the books. I’ve been meaning to read the other two ever since I loved this one so much, but as usual they’re still sitting on my wishlist. Glad to hear you think they’re so good too. Not my usual kind of thing either, but she’s wonderful – this one was so quiet but so full of emotional truth… 😀

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