Gilead

by Marilynne Robinson

Hardcover, 2004

Status

Available

Series

Genres

Publication

New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004.

Description

As the Reverend John Ames approaches the hour of his own death, he writes a letter to his son chronicling three previous generations of his family, a story that stretches back to the Civil War and reveals uncomfortable family secrets.

User reviews

LibraryThing member ChocolateMuse
This is a novel about peace. Not the kind that means cessation of war; not even the kind that means absence of conflict. It’s the kind of inner peace inside one which remains there regardless of events, and which comes from a solid place. It's the kind of peace Christ meant when he said to his disciples, Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you (John 14:27).

I’ve been really struggling with this review. I just did not know how to write about this book - didn’t know how to start, didn’t know how to approach the things I wanted to say. I’ve realised that part of the reason for this was an inability to write anything meaningful about it while avoiding religious content. I was worried about alienating potential readers who are non-religious or anti-religious. But this can’t be helped. The novel does, after all, have a narrator who is an elderly minister in a small Iowa town, writing a letter to his seven-year-old son for the latter to read when he is grown up and his father is long dead. It’s a letter which also becomes a kind of diary. It’s a place for an old man of deep faith to write out his thoughts and to commune (as he’d probably say himself) with his soul. He writes about his faith because it is his life - so how could a truthful review avoid mentioning it?

Our narrator Reverend John Ames begins the letter because he’s been diagnosed with a heart condition and won’t live much longer. His wife is much younger than he is, and his son is still a child, though Ames himself is seventy-six. Over the course of writing this letter, which he adds to a little at a time over a period of months, he begins by writing out memories, family history and other things he’d like his son to know in the future. But eventually another character arrives in town who disturbs John Ames profoundly. The thought of dying and leaving this character to do potential damage after Ames is gone becomes a matter of serious and deep worry. That’s what I mean about the intricacies of peace in this novel. We see from his writing that he is disturbed; afraid even. That he feels a loss of peace. And yet the peace is still there. To mix cliches, you could say that although the depths are stirred, the foundation is not shaken.

This book reminded me very much of one by George Macdonald with a similar premise: Annals of a Quiet Neighbourhood, a book I also enjoyed (but which is emphatically not for everyone). It has the same quiet introspection and a similar type of narrator, though the character of John Ames has more depth and intricacy.

I’ve been thinking lately about what makes a novel work. So often it relies on people doing or feeling bad things - lies, violence, greed, lust and the like. I’ve become very interested in the idea of novels which do not rely on these, but which are about people who mean well, people who (to put it crudely) want to be good. How do we get drama, conflict and profundity out of that? The Victorians tried, but their style is completely out of fashion now, probably with good reason. Is there a modern alternative? And if so, can it be really Good Literature? Well, yes. Gilead makes that clear. This book is not a sermon; it hardly even points a moral. It’s a character study, and a brilliant one. What there is of plot moves slowly, as John Ames savours each moment of what is left to him of life, and the reader with him does the same. The book is golden, gentle and profound. It takes no high moral ground, and doesn’t really have much of an agenda. It’s intelligent, and it’s kind - a combination which is not all that common.

Do not assume, by the way, that Rev. Ames 'communes with his soul' with a series of groans and midnight chest-beating. Far from it. He has a quiet, dry sense of humour, and a simplicity and honesty in his writing which makes every sentence a joy to read. His age and approaching death heightens his senses, and he sees things around him with a profound appreciation of beauty. There is also a sense that he still looks upon his wife and child with a kind of humble awe. The reader really feels, with John Ames, what it is like to be old, quiet, slow, and waiting for a death that is neither dreaded nor particularly wanted. The old Reverend is a very likeable man, and Robinson has really made him live. That small Iowa town has a way of persisting in the mind long after the book is finished.… (more)
LibraryThing member kambrogi
My theory about reading fiction is that you should read it straight through in as few sittings as possible, to immerse yourself in the story, to take up residence in the world it creates. That works for Gilead, too, but it might be better to take it slow. It deserves to be savored, to be rolled around in the mind, to be meditated upon for perhaps a lifetime. It’s a lot like reading the Bible, but with more human speech and annotations by Ghandi.

Congregationalist minister John Ames, nearing seventy-seven years old, sets out to write down some notes for the benefit of his six-year-old son. Ames’ heart condition has numbered his days, and he wants his son to know his family history as the descendant of three ministers, each of whom struggled to understand one errant son. Not that Ames’ child is errant, but that is part of the personal journey the story reveals in this middle-American tale set in the 1950’s. We read only Ames’ words, his meditations on the truth that his faith, the faith of his fathers and his best friend, and the experiences his history has revealed through three wars, one terrible drought and a Depression. In the course of the months during which he searches his soul, we are able to watch him mend one particular tear in the fabric of his life, and experience with him a personal transcendence that prepares him for the end.

This book is more philosophy than fiction, yet too dependent on its story to be simply a book of essays. Building on the lives of four ministers of the faith, Ames has compiled a Christianity we seldom see today. His faith is kind, generous, humble, forgiving, intelligent, thoughtful, wise and incredibly human. Ames’ failings -- as ordinary as they are heartbreaking -- provide poignancy to his story, but his struggles to be worthy of his God are mighty. Be forewarned: this is not a charming book of homilies, nor a set of Hallmark messages that capture tender moments. This complex, demanding story of the quest for divine grace is only just close enough to the earth for ordinary readers to catch hold of, and only then if we are willing to stand on tip-toe.

My one criticism is best expressed as a question: why is it only the men in this book who struggle with deep and demanding thoughts, who must find their way to divine truth and make decisions that will define the path for themselves, their families and their congregations? The women are very much in the background, in the role of gentle, understanding caretakers and wise but quiet nurturers. Not for them the heady world of thought and decision. Clearly, Marilynne Robinson herself chose another path, but then she was also born into another age.
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LibraryThing member Whisper1
I've struggled to capture my feelings/thoughts regarding this lovely book.

My first impressions were that the book was slow--too slow. Yet, it is the charm of the slowness that captured me and held me still. The meditative nature and lazy hum are analogous to the Rev. Ames who meticulously, softly meanders down memory lane.

Well deserving of the Pulitzer Prize award, I was smitten with the authors ability to write such lovely, lovely prose.

Gilead is narrated by Rev. John Ames whose life is coming to an end. As he ruminates, the reader travels with him on a journey of faith.

Somewhat self absorbed and a trite know it all in nature, still Rev. Ames has many redeeming qualities. He loves his much younger wife and their son. The images he captures are exquisitely, stunningly beautiful. Like light filtering through a gauzy bedroom curtain, the reader feels the need to stop for a few minutes and watch his life as the filters of dust settle on the wooden floors.

His is a journey of faith -- faith lost, faith found and then lost again. As his heart is failing him, he longs for a new body and a new purpose of fulfillment in life and in God.

I confess that in reading this book, the author taught me a few words I never knew:

susurrus -- soft or rustling sound
crepuscular -- pertaining to twilight

These two words succinctly describe the story. As the twilight of his life ended and the next phase occurs, Rev. Ames is transitioning softly -- as soft as autumn leaves as they flutter from the high branches to the low ground.

Highly recommended and destined to be one of my top ten favorites.
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LibraryThing member dchaikin
I read this originally in 2005 and enjoyed it, but mostly wondered what I had missed and then quickly forgot what I’d read. I re-read it after being won over by Home which left me with the feeling like I needed the whole story – and at only another 247 pages it’s not that difficult.

All-in-all I kind of missed the point - again. I went through the motions of reading it, but got disconnected half way through, and I should have put it down for a bit; but instead plunged ahead wastefully.

What I did get out of it this time was some better appreciation of the careful use language and of the overall complexity of the book's structure. In a sense this is three very different books in one. The first part is Reverend John Ames' background and life. He’s in his seventies with a 7-yr-old son and he has severe heart problems. This book is his message to the grown son he will never know. He starts by telling stories of his childhood. He’s a third generation minister and the stories of his grandfather and father’s philosophical battles color this story. At some point he begins to leave the back stories behind and wanders around his own theology and his own takes on life. Then Ames' interactions with Jack, a troubled man, begin to take over the narrative, making the third part of the book. Jack sends Ames into a theological crisis of sorts – or at least into some serious consideration on how the blend Jack into his lifelong-crafted thoughts on life. I’m tempted to characterize the structure as first a theological background, then theological thoughts, and then theology put into action – but that over simplifies and over-emphasizes the religious side, I think. Ames is not blindly religious, although he has his limits for dealing with atheism.

What amazed me in hindsight is that while Jack’s story is the center of this book, it’s not necessarily the best part. For me personally the early sections were wonderful – beginning with the trek Ames took with his father in 1892 on foot from Iowa to Kansas to find the grave of his grandfather who abandoned the family late in life. Ames was 12 at the time.

As he digs into his father and grandfather, the color of these two comes out in a rawness of their differences. It’s Ames wild grandfather that left the deepest impression on me. He came to Iowa from Maine during the era of bloody Kansas – and he came as a man possessed having had a vision of Christ. He fully invested himself in the violence of the anti-slavery movement while ministering. He supported John Brown and inspired a generation of Gilead, Iowa men to enlist and die in the Civil War; and then he continued preaching to his dwindling church of widows after the war. By Ames childhood, his grandfather was a something of a crazy man who still had conversations with God out loud, and constantly sacrificed himself – seeing himself only as a failure and disappointment of immense intensity. In one particularly riveting memory Ames’ grandfather says to Ames’ father, “Reverend, no words could be bitter enough, no day could be long enough. There is just no end to it. Disappointment. I eat it and drink it. I wake and sleep it.’’ In this deranged way he is somehow an inspiration. At some point in history President U. S. Grant characterized Iowa as “the shining star of radicalism” – a concept so completely opposite of everything we think of in Iowa today that it mocks its modern counterpart. And Ames' grandfather is the symbol of this radicalism – he’s also based on a real character.

I should have closed the book after this opening section and taken a break. Somewhere around page 100 the book gently morphs into where Ames begins to work in his theology and … well, I didn’t take it in. By the time I got the dramatic final story of Jack I was simply reading to finish.
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LibraryThing member souloftherose
"For me, writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn't writing prayers, as I was often enough. You feel that you are with someone. I feel I am with you now, whatever that can mean, considering that you're only a little fellow now and when you're a man you might find these letters of no interest. Or they might never reach you for any number of reasons. Well, but how deeply I regret any sadness you have suffered and how grateful I am in anticipation of any good you have enjoyed. That is to say, I pray for you. And there's an intimacy in it. That's the truth."

In 1956 the Reverend John Ames of Gilead, Iowa sits down to write a letter to his seven year old son. He's an old man with a young wife and child and he's just been told by his doctors that he has a serious heart condition and may not have much longer to live. Gilead is his letter to his son; it's about Ames' life in Gilead, his relationships with his father and grandfather, the early death of his first wife and daughter, his time spent alone as a minister and his troubled relationship with his friend's son, his namesake John Ames (Jack) Broughton. Although written by a man who has lived most of his live in a small town in American, Robinson also touches on the wider events of the American Civil War in which Ames' grandfather was involved as well as race relations in the 1950s through the story of Jack Broughton.

This is not a book to try and force yourself to read; my copy has sat unread on my shelves for the best part of two years but even though I loved it when I eventually read it, I still feel that I needed to wait until it was the right time to read it. It's a slow and reflective book, one to read in a contemplative mood. It's a love letter from a father to his son and it's wonderful.

"I'm writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you've done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God's grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle. You may not remember me very well at all, and it may seem to you to be no great thing to have been the good child of an old man in a shabby little town you will no doubt leave behind. If only I had the words to tell you."… (more)
LibraryThing member cameling
How many people, elderly and in poor health, knowing the Grim Reaper is slowly shuffling up the street, would think of writing a journal of their life, dreams and hopes to leave their young child? This is the story of one such man. John is a preacher, widower and then husband to his much younger 2nd wife, and father to a little boy. John's relationship with his own father, his one-eyed grandfather, his mother, his brother, his best friend and his wife are gradually drawn and painted in this journal. He speaks of his joy in watching his son play, the quiet of the night, walking into church and writing out his sermons. His character takes form as we read his journal and the reader sees this religious, gentle and loving man wanting to make sure his son knows who he is once death takes him.

At times funny, I loved his story of the town who dug a tunnel a stranger's horse fell into, at times a little sad, at times thought-provoking, at times inspirational. The experience reminds me of sitting at the foot of my grandmother as she told me stories of her past.
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LibraryThing member msbaba
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson is a meditation on the miracle of being and a celebration of the simple, yet ecstatic joy of everyday experience. It is a unique work of fiction—breathtakingly beautiful in its prose and clarion clear with wisdom. It is a book that is probably best read slowly and carefully by a mature reader. I am afraid this work will, for the most part, be lost on the young who will no doubt find it boring and plodding. It may require the wisdom of age and close to half a lifetime spent battling one’s own moral dilemmas in order to appreciate both this book’s message and messenger.

I take issue with a number of the reviewers here on LT that believe that only a Christian can truly love and understand this work. I am an unabashed atheist, but nonetheless, I firmly believe in the overriding importance of living a moral life. I have given a great deal of thought and time over the years to what it means to lead a moral life. I actively study books about religion, philosophy, and science that discuss underlying moral values and principles. In them, I look for what is universal and what my heart and mind tells me is right. Just like the protagonist, John Ames, I struggle every day to do what is right, and I learn from my mistakes.

For me, the experience of reading Gilead was akin to experiencing one very good man’s lifelong moral compass. I did not feel caught up any kind of preachy Christianity—in fact, I truly believe the author underplayed any specific religious elements. On the contrary, I felt overwhelmed with the universal humanity of it all. As I read, I felt like I was going through a profoundly secular spiritual experience.

I read Marilynne Robinson’s first novel Housekeeping over a quarter-century ago and it certainly remains one of my favorite books. I’ve gone back to it again and again over the years. My dog-eared paperback edition is underlined and starred with notes in the margins—I would not part with it for ten times its weight in gold. I am sure I will grow to feel the same way about Gilead. It, too, is now underlined, starred, and with much in the margins. It will no doubt be the first book I will turn to whenever I feel the need for moral guidance.
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LibraryThing member ctpress
“Grace has a grand laughter in it.”

The old reverend John Ames has a heart condition and knows he's going to die very soon. He writes a letter to his young son, the blessing of a late marriage to a much younger woman. The novel is this long letter, an attempt to pass on his own story and the story of his father and grandfather.

“People talk about how wonderful the world seems to children, and that's true enough. But children think they will grow into it and understand it, and I know very well that I will not, and would not if I had a dozen lives.”

This is a profoundly moving and insightful novel. The beauty of the story is not in a fast moving plot - no, this story will slow you down - should slow you down - this is a meditation on life, what it means to be human, the mystery of faith, the wonder of creation, the grief and regret that a life fully lived will contain, the relationship between father and son, about the things that are worth living for and dying for.

The first part is mainly stories of his father and grandfather, but while writing the letter, things also happens in the present. The "prodigal son" of his best friend is returning to town - a young man, whom John Ames has always disliked - he struggles with accepting him, and his own "theology" is put to a test.

“The Lord is more constant and far more extravagant than it seems to imply. Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don't have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?”
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LibraryThing member CasualFriday
This 2005 Pulitizer Prize winner is our library book group's selection for July. I have already heard from several readers that they could not finish it, and I will admit that for the about half the book, I couldn't read more than 10 pages at a time, but when it finally "took" for me, I loved it. Here's one more reason to dispense with the Nancy Pearl 50-page rule.

John Ames, an elderly minister, is dying,and writing a series of letters to his seven year old son (he married a younger woman late in life). He talks some about his faith. He talks some about his late marriage. He talks about the conflicts between his father and grandfather over abolitionism and pacifism. He mostly talks around the many years of loneliness and disappointment in his life.

Upseting Ames's hope for a peaceful end, Jack, the prodigal son of his neighbor and fellow minister Boughton, comes home for a visit. Ames dislikes and distrusts him, although for a long time he holds back the reason why. The central "story" in this book without much of one is Ames's finding room in his heart to forgive and pity this man he long despised.

The prose is graceful and unadorned. There is not much story. The book demands your concentration. I almost snoozed a few times in the beginning, but in the end, I cried, just for the love of this beautiful, fallible man, his wistfulness in leaving the beautiful world, and his ability to love human beings in all their imperfection.
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LibraryThing member JohnNebauer
A wonderfully written work in which an aged clergyman looks upon his life through a letter to his young son. It examines the relationships between his father and grandfather, also preachers, his best friend (another preacher), between himself and God, and also his troubled relationship with his best friend's son. (named after himself). It's a story that unfolds slowly, with prose that rewards rolling around the literary palate. A work to savour for those who want to contemplate the meaning of their lives.… (more)
LibraryThing member rainpebble
I loved "Gilead". It is written as a memoir from a dying elderly (at least third generational preacher) to his seven year old son. And It is written in a manner that takes one back to about the 1950s. The father, who is narrating, writes in a very calming, soothing way and is attempting to let his son know what he thinks, why he thinks that way and about things that have occurred in his lifetime and the reactions and responses to those occurrences.
The preacher married late in life and had his son even later so he wants to share as much as he can to give his son an understanding of himself as a man. He writes of his beautiful relationship with his best friend (a preacher of another denomination) and of his wife, the boy's mother. He writes to him of his growing up years and he and his father's relationship.
The book is full of God, the Bible, prayer and of a life devoted to God. Yet it is not written in a preachy way at all. I also think it was much more contemplative than religious. If I didn't love the Lord, I think I still would have loved this book because of the way it was written. The author's words simply flow throughout the entire novel. It is one of the easiest books I have read all year and perhaps one of the best. It may not make my top ten, but it will certainly be way up there. Marilynne Robinson is a wonderful author. I highly recommend this book to people of all persuasions. The only other book I have read that I can compare feeling this way about upon finishing would be "Cry, the Beloved Country". There was just something about "Gilead" that took my breath away.
Do something really kind for yourself and read this one.
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LibraryThing member corinneblackmer
The prose--and its evocations--were so powerful one had to stop from time to time to weep, wonder, read out loud, or read again. The Reverend Ames of Gilead, Iowa, has a young son, and as the reverend is an old man, and his son only nine, this novel is written as a series of what might be called "Benjamin Franklin" letters to his young son, advising him about life and telling him about the past. That past includes, most movingly, the abolitionist clergy who were in Gilead in the nineteenth century; the doings of Jack Boughton, the prodigal son who is the offspring of his best friend, Reverend Boughton, and theological matters. I am not a Christian (I am Jewish) and books with explicit Christian themes can often leave me cold. This was an exception, in the strongest terms, and induced in me a kind of reverential humility.… (more)
LibraryThing member wiseasgandalf
John Ames is dying.

He has lived seventy six years in the small Kansas town of Gilead, most of those pastoring the small country church his father & his grandfather pastored before him.

He watches his seven year old son, the son he never thought he would have, playing at his feet, and realizes he will never see him grow up.

And so he writes, trying to distill his soul into words, to tell his son everything his heart yearns to but knows it will not live to do.

*************

I rarely read fiction. I have no desire to be entertained by a book. Instead, I want, no, I need a book to grab me by the throat, wrestle me to the ground, and hold me there until I am so overwhelmed by the goodness of God that I am weeping. And so I read men like Piper & Eldredge & Chan & Crabb, because they can do that to me.

It is rare that a book of fiction has that capacity. Gilead does.

It is a work of stunning beauty & grace & wisdom. I had underlined many passages and shed many tears by the time I turned the last page. It is no surprise to me at all why Marilynne Robinson won the Pulitzer for this novel. Read it. It will bless your socks off.
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LibraryThing member mrtall
I wanted very badly to love this book -- where else in contemporary fiction are you going to find someone putting in a good word for John Calvin? -- but in the end I found it possible only to respect it greatly.

I credit Robinson for tackling the Big Questions of grace, redemption, and forgiveness. I also do not fault her for the form of the book, as others have -- the rambling epistolary structure is apt for developing a character who's a dying 76-year-old man. For those who say it doesn't have a plot: please, just read the parable of the prodigal son. And Robinson's language is marvelously elegant.

But the book founders on three shoals. First, as an Iowan myself, I found that Gilead evokes little sense of the place. Perhaps Robinson's intention is to set the book in an Everyplace, but I think this comes at some cost. Second, although Robinson is again to be credited for taking on the formidable challenge of writing in a voice so different from her own, she doesn't entirely succeed. John Ames sounds distinctly feminine to me at many points. Third, John Ames' theological/philosophical musings are not always convincing. There is an odd lack of depth to his considerations of baptism and the eucharist, no matter how striking the images of them he recalls. They are almost aesthetic rather than spiritual events. Even more odd is the way he manages to avoid talking about Jesus throughout almost the whole book. I know the Old Testament stories Robinson references repeatedly are more in keeping with the prophetic, fire-and-blood legacy of Ames' grandfather, but a lifelong pastor who's the descendant of pastors would simply not talk about sin and redemption without coming before the Cross over and over again.

Highly recommended, never the less. Robinson is a brave writer.
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LibraryThing member karieh
Sometimes you read a book at just the right time. Had you been at any other age or at any other point in your life - that same book would not have had the same kind of impact. "Gilead" by Marilynne Robinson was one of those kinds of books for me. I had just finished a book that was very good, very well written, but extremely hard to read. It was a reminder of the darkest sides to the human soul and left me with a feeling of despair.

Picking up "Gilead", however, was like applying a healing salve to my soul. The incredible sense of grace and awe that permeates the book brought me back to a place of wonder. The simple joy that the main character, John Ames, takes in his wife and son - and in the physical world around him, made me remember that people are capable of good as well as evil. The book was reminiscent for me of Nicholson baker's "A Box of Matches". The main character distills an increasingly complex world down into simple pleasures.

""There's a shimmer on a child's hair, in the sunlight. There are rainbow colors in it, tiny, soft beams of just the same colors you can see in the dew sometimes...I suppose you're not prettier than most children. You're just a nice looking boy, a bit slight, well scrubbed and well mannered. All that is fine, but it's your existence I love you for, mainly. Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined."

For a spiritual man, Ames seems to find more wonder and meaning and holiness in the creations of the Lord than the existence of the Lord. He takes such warm delight in the unique humanness of those around him. "Since supper was three kinds of casserole with two kinds of fruit salad, with cake a pie for dessert, I gathered that my flock, who lambaste life's problems with food items of just this kind, had heard an alarm. There was even a bean salad, which to me looked distinctly Presbyterian, so anxiety had over spilled its demininational vessel."

The words flow over the reader with warmth and love and gentle humor. The book enjoys a very easy, measured pace, and forces the reader to slow down and enjoy the stroll. The book is full of the true, flawed, glorious, doubting and genuine spirituality that I wish there was so much more of in the world, and has none of the preachy, holier-than-thou, viciously righteous religion that has done nothing but evil in our world since humans came into being.

The book also reminds me that there is magic in the written word. At times Ames is talking to his 7-year old son, but can then switch mid-paragraph to talking to the same person in his adulthood. By committing his thoughts to paper - he realizes that he can transcend time and talk to the person his son is now and the person his son will be - and that his words will have different meaning depending on the stage of life of the reader.

At times Ames also steps out of his role as a father and acknowledges his role as a writer. "In writing this, I notice the care it costs me not to use certain words more than I ought to. I am thinking about the word "just". I almost wish I could have written that the sun just shone and the tree just glistened, and the water just poured out of it and the girl just laughed - when it's used that way it does indicate a stress on the word that follows it, and also a particular pitch of the voice...there is something real signified by that word "just" that proper language won't acknowledge."

Robinson has created a timeless thing of beauty in this book. It's a window to the soul of a man who while old in years, still possess the wonder of youth. His eyes and heart have seen much that is sad and hurtful, yet he still values every aspect of the world and the life he has experienced. He knows that he has not much longer on this earth, but day by day and minute by minute, he is thankful. "I hate to think what I would give for a thousand mornings like this. For two or three."

Even if I never read "Gilead" in its entirety again - I cannot imagine I will not go back to it again - when times are dark and I need a bit of light and love and wonder.
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LibraryThing member William345
This novel reminds me--with its beautifully spare prose and the bleak stoicism of its characters--of three books: Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses, Willa Cather's My Ántonia, and Martin Amis's House of Meetings. The writing is conversational in tone, which is enormously hard to do, though it looks easy, and beautifully compressed.

Gilead is the story of a Protestant pastor, the Reverent Ames, who, in the midwestern town of Gilead of about 1950 or so, writes to his then seven-year-old son. The pastor is dying and the letter is intended to be read when his son has reached adulthood.

In it the pastor speaks of his grandfather and his father, and the long tradition of Christian ministry in the family, that, the writer assumes, will not continue with the recipient of the document which we, a little guiltily perhaps, hold in our hands. For the sense is very strong here of the reader as interloper, gazing at personal documents not meant for his eyes.

And just as we surely know that what we read can only resolve itself in death and dissolution, and we brace ourselves for that end--we've been given fair warning--yet despite this we find that there is no way to steel ourselves for the conclusion. We know vaguely the shape it may take, and yet it still moves us indescribably. This to my mind is great writing and no merely clever metafictional trickery can ever supplant it.

Christianity is not entirely the point of the story. Though the pastor has been driven by it the whole of his life and it's integral to his concern for family and flock, and the natural world, which he sees as pervaded by spirit at every level. Faith here is the means by which Marilynne Robinson shows us her characters' humanity, the tenuousness of their existence, their lives of suffering and loss, impermanence and fleetingness.

It has been wonderful for this agnostic to see how the old school, middle-American Christianity used to work in a good man. That is to say, how it drives him to ecstasis, to open-heartedness and love and an almost unbearable joy. It's pretty heady stuff. No doubt those so inclined will find the novel a powerful affirmation of faith, which is a fine thing. My point is that it would be a mistake to read it solely as a Christian novel. Masters like Naguib Mahfouz and Isaac Bashevis Singer have produced similarly powerful fictions using far different religious contexts. And Ms. Robinson's excellent work, like theirs, transcends its religiosity to bring us something deeply universal.

V.S Naipaul wrote in one of his books on Islam that the great gift of religious people is their confidence. How lovely, I've always felt, to be able to take solace in such belief. The Reverend Ames never wavers in his faith, but it is only by continual self-questioning that he's able to sustain it. Life is suffering. I have been wrong when I've thought of faith as an opiate. For the thinking person it is as challenging as any other form of mindful living.
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LibraryThing member mrstreme
Gilead is a lyrical ode to fathers and sons. Written as a long letter to his seven-year-old son, the story centers on a dying preacher, John Ames, and his views on religion, small-town life, his ancestors and forgiveness. You could almost feel the urgency in his pen as he writes passages about his life - a way to leave behind something for his young son who would never get to know his father.

Reverend Ames recounts nostalgic stories about the town of Gilead, which formed to assist runaway slaves and later became a hideaway for abolitionist John Brown. He shifts into stories about his grandfather, father and brother - who all shared different religious views. He also recollects childhood stories about his friend Boughton, who was also a preacher in Gilead.

Then, the story explores father-son relationships further by introducing one of Boughton's sons, and Reverend Ames's namesake, John Ames Boughton. Jack, as he was called, had a lifetime of trouble in his back pocket, and he was a constant source of worry for Reverend Ames and his friend. There was a certain event in Jack's past that was particularly bothersome for Reverend Ames, and he could never forgive him. As the reverend reaches his last days, Jack returns to town ,and Reverend Ames begins to worry about the influence his namesake will have on his young son.

Gilead has many touching moments, but I found the story to be burdened by the religious discourses that Reverend Ames follows. I am not a student of religious philosophy, so the philosophers mentioned only confused me. However, in a style I favor for my sermons, Gilead is short, poignant and allegorical, reminding us that to love and forgive are what life is all about.
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LibraryThing member LovingLit
This book is a minefield of theology. Take a step BOOM, theological rumination....BOOM BOOM, theological discourse with a side of religion....BOOM, theology and father son issues. If you can get through all that and out the other side with a smile on your face- then you will love this book like I did. The story is a slow rambling from an elderly and unwell man of the cloth. He is writing a letter to his young child in the hope that this will provide some of what he will miss out on being able to tell her as she grows.

Its setting is small town America, in the recent past. But the real guts of the story is relationships. Friendships, loves, parenting and all the trickiness and complications that goes with them. It is conversational in style, and jumps around revealing bits and pieces along the way. Ultimately revealing some truths that are hard to put in words. Lovely. 4 stars.
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LibraryThing member maryreinert
Forgiveness, jealously, love, grace, faith, fear, and resentment are all themes so tightly woven into this beautifully written multi-generational story. Incidents in the story take place in rural Iowa and Kansas from the time of the Civil War through the 1950's. Although that time and culture is much different than most of us are now living, the characters of Rev. John Ames, his father, his grandfather, and his namesake John Ames Broughton are some of the most authentic that I have ever met in fiction.

Gilead is a spiritually fulfilling book and not because (or maybe in spite of the fact) most of the major characters are preachers. The fact that they are preachers only provides a clearer lens in which to see the issues of belief and doubt and how that belief or doubt affects our daily lives. Interesting note that one reviewer who states he is an atheist wrote the book "becomes a meditation on how even the simplest life can be touched by grace and wonder." Perhaps it is the simplest life that is most likely touched by grace and wonder as these characters demonstrate so beautifully in many ways such as Rev. Ames' final blessing of John Ames Broughton and the heartrending scene of the young neglected mother and her naked unnamed child playing in the stream.

I can't decide if this is a simple book or a complicated one, but it is one that could and should be read over and over. It is a significant book; however, do not think that it is "heavy." There is a quiet humor that often surfaces in the least expected places. I only hope that those with a cynical nature do not give up on it during the first part; it takes a while to work through some of the early narrative and what some might consider religious rambling but which provide the context for the confrontations that take place in the last third of the book.

In short, a beautiful book by an outstanding writer.
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LibraryThing member LTW
From the first page of her second novel, the voice of Rev. John Ames mesmerizes with his account of his life—and that of his father and grandfather. Ames is 77 years old in 1956, in failing health, with a much younger wife and six-year-old son; as a preacher in the small Iowa town where he spent his entire life, he has produced volumes and volumes of sermons and prayers, "[t]rying to say what was true." But it is in this mesmerizing account—in the form of a letter to his young son, who he imagines reading it when he is grown—that his meditations on creation and existence are fully illumined. Ames details the often harsh conditions of perishing Midwestern prairie towns, the Spanish influenza and two world wars. He relates the death of his first wife and child, and his long years alone attempting to live up to the legacy of his fiery grandfather, a man who saw visions of Christ and became a controversial figure in the Kansas abolitionist movement, and his own father's embittered pacifism. During the course of Ames's writing, he is confronted with one of his most difficult and long-simmering crises of personal resentment when John Ames Boughton (his namesake and son of his best friend) returns to his hometown, trailing with him the actions of a callous past and precarious future. In attempting to find a way to comprehend and forgive, Ames finds that he must face a final comprehension of self—as well as the worth of his life's reflections. Robinson's prose is beautiful, shimmering and precise; the revelations are subtle but never muted when they come, and the careful telling carries the breath of suspense.… (more)
LibraryThing member lyzadanger
I know what she's going for and I like the way she speaks it. But I have little inherent interest in the subject and a nagging detachment from the main character.

What's really tricksy is that Robinson's protagonist is not the bland, safe reverend narrator, but the flawed and urbanized young Jack Boughton. Boughton is interesting. Reverend Ames builds a plodding, actionless tapestry of small-town Iowa life, interweaving the calmness and beauty of the prairie with mentions of the intolerances and prejudices of provincial folk. But when Boughton comes on-screen, the action always changes to something more charged, something with inconsistencies and emotion.

It's hard to get passionate about Ames, though, except when he's facing off with Boughton, defending his Calvinist predestination with blundering foolishness, fending off un-Christian anger. Ames effectively admits that he knows if he ever left the little town of Gilead, his faith would be shaken and he may never return--are he and Boughton actually the same soul?

Robinson writes a mean sentence. She builds a memorable scene. But in the end, that's not enough for me. But this is just me--religion doesn't interest me. I'd suspect someone deeply moved by the theology herein would give it more stars.
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LibraryThing member cbl_tn
Knowing that he's living out the last weeks of his life, third-generation pastor John Ames begins a long letter to the young son born late in his father's life. Reverend Ames writes as one adult to another, in a sense substituting for the memories his son will not have as he grows up without a father. Reverend Ames starts with family history and brings to life his grandfather, the first John Ames, a fervent abolitionist, and his father, the second John Ames, an equally earnest pacifist. Gradually the narrative assumes the nature of a spiritual journal as Reverend Ames becomes introspective about his calling as a minister and the living out of this call, the theological questions he has wrestled with, his continuing struggles for purity of thought and action, and meditations on the sacredness of the ordinary things in life.

This was the perfect book to read during the Thanksgiving season. John Ames was conscious of the blessings in his life, from his wife and son's love and companionship in his old age to the memory of the light over his grandfather's Kansas grave. In John Ames, we see the possibilities of living well, with gratitude, faith, and integrity, and of ending well, with few regrets and hope for the future.

This book belongs on every pastor's bookshelves alongside works on pastoral theology and practical ministry. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member nittnut
What a fabulous book. It's a slower paced read, and very thoughtful. John Ames is a minister who is nearing the end of his life. He contemplates what he would like his young child to know and writes it in a long letter to his imagined, but unknown, grown up son. He tells stories of his family, his ministry, his friend and fellow preacher Boughton who is a close neighbor. Through the letter, there is a slow build-up of tension regarding recently returned prodigal son of Boughton who is named after John. This adds some depth and suspense to an otherwise gentle and peaceful narrative. When the reveal finally occurs, it is juxtaposed with personal reflection and a thoughtful sermon on the idea of forgiveness and grace. As a Christian, many of the things John Ames was thinking about and sorting in his head resonated with me, and I think reflect the life of a man truly aiming to live his beliefs and become better, while acknowledging his imperfections. It's a beautiful read and beautifully written and well worth the time.

A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension.

"Have I offended you in some way, Reverend?" my father would ask.
And his father would say, "No Reverend, you have not offended me in any way at all. Not at all."
And my mother would say, "Now don't you two get started."

I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can't believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don't imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.

It seems to me people tend to forget that we are to love our enemies, not to satisfy some standard of righteousness, but because God their Father loves them.
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LibraryThing member Sandydog1
Elegant, eloquent, pastoral, peaceful, lyrical, spiritual.

'And sometimes boring-as-snot.
LibraryThing member BayardUS
For a couple years I had this book marked as three stars, because despite the fact that I recognized Robinson's writing as amazing and found the book emotionally affecting, in the end the book just wasn't for me. It hadn't given me what I look for from a book, despite its beauty and its craft. But it's years later and the book has stuck with me, and when I think of instances where an author managed to create a fully realized flesh-and-blood character, what Robinson did here with minister Ames is one of the first that comes to mind. It's a great book, and you should read it, because even if (like me) you find that it isn't your cup of tea, you'll be better off for having met John Ames.… (more)

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Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (Paperback)
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