Winner of the 2004 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson is a genteel study of 1950’s rural life in the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa. Published in 2004, Gilead is Robinson’s second novel, following her critically acclaimed debut novel Housekeeping.
Gilead is one of those books that you have to set aside time to read; lounge in a comfortable chair with a warm mug of tea and just let Robinson’s words wash over you. In our June Writers as Readers discussion, members used words like rhythm, sensual, and textured to describe Robinson’s prose.
The story is presented to the reader as a long letter, a style know as epistolary style. The narrator, John Ames is a 76 year old pastor suffering from a failing heart. Having married a much younger woman later in life and fathering a son with her, Ames is eager that the boy know him. Ames accepts that he will not survive to see his son grow up, so he pens a long letter of childhood stories, fatherly wisdom, regrets, reminiscences, and reflections.
WaR members enjoyed the smooth rhythm of Robinson’s writing, marveling at how she so aptly controlled the pace of the story with her sensual and textured narrative. “You couldn’t speed ahead even if you wanted to,” noted Cindy Kremer. Ames’ story moves along at a leisurely pace, like a raft floating down a lazy river, yet she’s added just enough intrigue and mystery to keep the pages turning. The descriptions of his abolitionist grandfather who knew John Brown, his pacifist father, and his atheist brother are vivid and lend authenticity to the story. The central theme of the book being the relationships between fathers and sons, as well as between God the Father and his sons, WaR members also found themes of forgiveness, family, and the sacredness of life.
When removed from the confines of its Midwest, rural setting, Gilead also favors the reader with a reverent examination of life and spirit, of finding sacredness in daily routine, in the ordinary, and the familiar. To everyone’s delight, Robinson introduced us to the onomatopoeia susurrus, defined as a whispering or rustling sound. It was a word, as well as an experience, that enchanted Ames.
Graced with a subtle beauty and style, Gilead stays with you long after you finish reading it.