Gilead

by Marilynne Robinson

Hardcover, 2004

Status

Available

Series

Genres

Publication

New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004.

Description

In 1956, as a minister approaches the end of his life, 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.

Media reviews

But in Gilead, Robinson is addressing the plight of serious people with a calm-eyed reminder of the liberal philosophical and religious traditions of a nation whose small towns "were once the bold ramparts meant to shelter peace", citing a tradition of intellectual discursiveness and a historical cycle that shifts from radical to conservative then back to radical again, and presenting, as if from the point of view of time's own blindness, an era when unthinkable things were happening but were themselves about to change unimaginably, for the better. It takes issue with the status quo by being a message, across generations, from a now outdated status quo. "What have I to leave you but the ruins of old courage, and the lore of old gallantry and hope?"
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Gradually, Robinson's novel teaches us how to read it, suggests how we might slow down to walk at its own processional pace, and how we might learn to coddle its many fine details. Nowadays, when so many writers are acclaimed as great stylists, it's hard to make anyone notice when you praise a writer's prose. There is, however, something remarkable about the writing in 'Gilead.' It's not just a matter of writing well, although Robinson demonstrates that talent on every page [...] Robinson's words have a spiritual force that's very rare in contemporary fiction -- what Ames means when he refers to 'grace as a sort of ecstatic fire that takes things down to essentials.
Marilynne Robinson draws on all of these associations in her new novel, which -- let's say this right now -- is so serenely beautiful, and written in a prose so gravely measured and thoughtful, that one feels touched with grace just to read it. Gilead possesses the quiet ineluctable perfection of Flaubert's "A Simple Heart" as well as the moral and emotional complexity of Robert Frost's deepest poetry. There's nothing flashy in these pages, and yet one regularly pauses to reread sentences, sometimes for their beauty, sometimes for their truth: "Adulthood is a wonderful thing, and brief. You must be sure to enjoy it while it lasts."

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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 banjo123
My book group voted to read this book. I was looking forward to it, as I knew that it was a favorite of many on LT. However, as the month went on, I heard from several book group members who did not like it and couldn't believe it won the Pulitzer. So I was nervous to pick it up, because I knew I'd be at odds, either with my LT friends, or my RL friends.

The book discussion is going to be interesting, because I adore this book. I have to immediately get Home and Lila so I can read them as well.

I can see how some readers could be put off. The narrative style is kind of weird and non-linear, and the narrator not entirely reliable. But so human! And gorgeous writing.

I think a lot of people have read this book, and know the plot a little bit. It's a letter from John Ames, a Congregationalist preacher in Gilead, Iowa, to his son. This is a son of Ames' old age, and he doesn't expect to live to see his son's manhood. It's a book with a strong sense of place, and of it's place in history. Ame's grandfather was an abolitionist preacher who was involved with John Brown. The grandfather left a fiery legacy, not all for the good.

"When my father found his father at Mount Pleasant after the war ended, he was shocked at first to see how he had been wounded. In fact, he was speechless. So my grandfather’s first words to his son were “I am confident that I will find great blessing in it.” And that is what he said about everything that happened to him for the rest of his life, all of which tended to be more or less drastic. I remember at least two sprained wrists and a cracked rib. He told me once that being blessed meant being bloodied, and that is true etymologically, in English – but not in Greek or Hebrew. So whatever understanding might be based on that derivation had no scriptural authority behind it. It was unlike him to strain interpretation that way. He did it in order to make an account of himself, I suppose, as most of us do."

I found out that this is one of President Obama's favorite books. He recently interviewed Marilynne Robinson about it. One interesting thing I found here, was that Obama really related to the story because his mother and grandparents come from Kansas.

One other thing, since this review seems pretty stream-of-consciousness, but for anyone who loves this book, I really recommend reading A River Runs Through It by Norman MacLean.
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LibraryThing member RoseCityReader
I was surprised some at how much I enjoyed this book. Because it is an epistolary novel consisting of only one, long letter from a 77 year old minister to his seven year old son, I thought it would be boring. It was certainly different from any contemporary books I've read, but it wasn't boring at all.

In his letter, the father writes about his own youth and his relationship with his father, his scallywag of a grandfather, his best friend and that man's ne'er-do-well son, the history of his Iowa town as a stop on the Underground Railroad during the Civil War, and his two marriages. Throughout, he ties in the themes of grace, forgiveness, and man's fallibility.

I was particularly struck by the narrator's discussions on how much he enjoyed his life. He writes the letter to his son knowing that he will not be around when his son is an adult. But, although he is approaching death and anticipating his heavenly afterlife, he makes it clear that he appreciated the temporal pleasures of his life -- the beauty of the prairie, his books and education, falling in love, baseball, and his town.

It was wonderful.
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LibraryThing member RobinDawson
Unique and wonderful.

The novel harks back to an earlier age and a simpler world. In some ways Robinson’s concerns are quite unfashionable – yet they strike a chord with me. They make me nostalgic for the argument of a good sermon and the consolations of a good hymn. We used to gather and read the Good Book – now we sit in book groups – I feel something has been lost.

It's quite a challenge to write a book about a good man - not flawed, not weak, not destructive – just struggling all his life to understand what God requires of him, struggling with his faith and the need for forgiveness. John is a man who is frequently amazed and delighted with the beauty and wonder of the world around him, his family, and all his blessings.

This book could never come from Australia. It is so steeped in American history. Many of the references are lost on me. – civil war, abolitionist movement. Clearly race and religion are distinctive and powerful forces shaping American society.

It was also interesting to read this book just after reading The Road. Both won the Pulitzer, and both describe a harrowing journey by a father and son, but they present vastly different pictures of America. In addition women are peripheral in both novels. Despite her great importance to him John Ames never uses his wife’s name. She is only named by once by Jack – Lila.
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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)
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 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 akosikulot-project52
"I meant to leave you a reasonably candid testament to my better self, and it seems to me now that what you must see here is just an old man struggling with the difficulty of understanding what it is he's struggling with." - Thoughts on Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

"There have been heroes here, and saints and martyrs, and I want you to know that. Because that is the truth, even if no one remembers it. To look at the place, it's just a cluster of houses strung along a few roads, and a little row of brick buildings with stores in them, and a grain elevator and a water tower with Gilead written on its side, and the post office and the schools and the playing fields and the old train station, which is pretty well gone to weeds now. But what must Galilee have looked like? You can't tell so much from the appearance of a place."

Ah, Gilead. It's been a month now since I finished reading you, and I must admit I still feel insufficient in writing about you - you are a modern epic. Here I am, leafing through my notes (all ten pages of them, almost unreadable, written so small so that a page may accommodate as many thoughts as possible), and one line stands out: "This book feels like a full meal," I said, and I meant it, and still do.

I cannot put into words just how beautiful you are, to be honest. I feel insecure. It's like professing to the world a love that only I had the chance to feel. But I will try, for the sake of telling, probably with excessive quoting, and subtle sighs included.

***

Where do I start? But of course, I begin with Reverend John Ames, who in 1956 wrote a letter to his young son in order that he may not be forgotten and that he may get to be known better, lest he die soon enough to miss out on being there when his son grows up. "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." And here lies the story of Gilead: the history of a small town in Iowa based on three generations of men of cloth, Ames and his father and his father before him; the story of simple lives lived with great impact on those around them; a long letter detailing incidents of love and loss, self-doubt, forgiveness, praise and acceptance. "It was just that kind the place was meant to encourage, that a harmless life could be lived here unmolested."

Here was a man who lived a full life, and yet as he writes his letter one gets the sense that he still yearns for a bit more. "Remembering my youth makes me aware that I never really had enough of it, it was over before I was done with it." He's devoted his entire life to his church, and in doing so never really thought much of marriage and family until later, when he met his much younger wife and had his only son. And now he realizes that having started so late, he's destined to miss out on a lot, and while he ought not regret this (for hasn't he lived a full life preaching the Word of God?), it prompts a remembrance of things that have passed. Of his seventy-six years, seventy-four were spent living in Gilead.

"There must have been a hundred little towns like it, set up in the heat of an old urgency that is all forgotten now, and their littleness and their shabbiness, which was the measure of the courage and passion that went into the making of them, now just look awkward and provincial and ridiculous, even to the people who have lived here long enough to know better. It looks ridiculous to me. I truly suspect I never left because I was afraid I would not come back."

***

"You can know a thing to death and be for all purposes completely ignorant of it. A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty, and love and mutual incomprehension." And here we learn of his father and his grandfather, his predecessors even in vocation, and their relations. His father was a preacher and his grandfather a minister, and were men of clashing temperament - his father was a pacifist, while his grandfather, prompted by a vision of Christ in chains, "preached men into the Civil War," losing his right eye while serving as a chaplain in the Union Army. "He told me once that being blessed meant being bloodied, and that is true etymologically, in English."

John Ames explains in his letter the complications between his father and his grandfather, and of his opinions on them both. His grandfather, in particular, was quite the character: a man feared and respected, John Ames regarded him as one of those "saints and martyrs" of Gilead, albeit with a caveat. "Those saints got old and the times changed and they just seemed like eccentrics and nuisances, and no one wanted to listen to their fearsome old sermons or hear their wild old stories."

And in his telling of his father and grandfather's shaky relationship, we find the root of the parade of disappointments that seem to plague this story, always between father and son. "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."

One of those disappointments manifested in the story is his godson and namesake, John Ames "Jack" Boughton, returning after a long absence, for his father - and John Ames's closest friend - is dying. Jack seems to have let down the Reverend in more ways than one. And here I was baffled beyond understanding, as to why John Ames should be so disappointed with him, when even Jack's own father Old Boughton was not? Even the Reverend cannot explain why his relationship with Jack is strained - it just is. "...and it is true that we all do live in the ruins of the lives of other generations, so there is a seeming continuity which is important because it deceives us."

***

Nostalgia. If I could sum up Gilead in a word, that would be it. Robinson made me feel something akin to nostalgia (which clearly isn't the right word for me, as I'm only twenty and nostalgia is a long way off), the overflowing of regrets and absolutions, the ruminations on old age, the cheerful remembering masking quiet discontent. "I told you you might have a very different life from mine and from the life you've had with me, and that would be a wonderful thing, there are many ways to live a good life," John Ames writes in his letter, and I believe this to be true. Because while Gilead is the center of the story, it is only but a stop in their journeys: the characters came, they went, they decided to stay, they might one day leave. And while this is the story of John Ames's life as told in a letter to his son, in letting his son know that once upon a time he existed in this world, Gilead is also about a man who took a look back at his life and saw its entire duration in playback, finding out that every single moment - be it of joy, sorrow, transgression or forgiveness - mattered to his being. "It is a strange thing, after all, to be able to return to a moment, when it can hardly be said to have any reality at all, even in its passing. A moment is such a slight thing, I mean, that its abiding is a most gracious reprieve." Reverend John Ames, in telling his young son the details of his life, gave us a glimpse of it, too, and of the little town of Gilead, and the people who made it come alive.

"When things are taking their ordinary course, it is hard to remember what matters. There are so many things you would never think to tell anyone. And I believe they may be the things that mean most to you, and that even your own child would have to know in order to know you well at all."

PS. "There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient." Remember that.

Orginally posted here.… (more)
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 Sandydog1
Elegant, eloquent, pastoral, peaceful, lyrical, spiritual.

'And sometimes boring-as-snot.

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Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (Paperback)
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