Written in 2004, “Gilead” earned Ms. Robinson both the Pulitzer and The National Book Critics Circle Award. This followed the success she enjoyed a couple of decades earlier with the fictional “Housekeeping.” In the interim, the author had written mainly non-fiction.
“Gilead” is the name of a small town in Iowa, and in this context is the home of three generations of Congregationalist ministers by the name of Ames. The grandfather, the father and the son all lived in the same house and preached in the same church, for the most part.
The grandfather was a Union Soldier and an abolitionist. The son was more or less a pacifist in reaction to what he considered his father’s rather extreme political views. Both the son and grandson and their wives live quiet and simple lives in Gilead, but they all deal with the huge questions of human existence. Their struggles are the same ones faced by all men and women since the beginning of time.
In Robinson’s hands, these questions are phrased so beautifully and with such perspicuity that they somehow seem brand new. It is not that you have never thought these thoughts or taken up these issues before, but her lovely phrasing opens up new pathways in your brain, and perhaps new patterns of synapses are enabled. Such is the efficacy of powerful art.
Despite all the differences among the generations of Ames men, there is plenty of love; however, for true compassion, they turn to their women or their best friends. In the last minister’s case, John Ames’ best friend is Robert Boughton, lifelong companion and fellow minister in Gilead.
Robert is the Presbyterian minister and the two men have much in common. They struggle with issues of theology, humanity, the venality of their own family members, and their personal failings as husbands, sons, and fathers. These are good, kind men whom you might expect to be narrow and judgmental, but are far less so than those around them, and far less than many around them would predict or expect. Both John and Robert are the victims of the assumptions of others. Yet they rise time and again with forgiveness and warmth for those who harshly presume to know their hearts and minds.
John’s first wife and child both died in the early years of his service to his church. He has lived alone for decades in sorrow and solitude until one day a strange young woman comes to his church to find shelter from a drenching rain storm. He loses his heart to her almost immediately. Despite the difference in their ages and backgrounds, they marry and have a young son.
John is so grateful for this second chance at happiness. All the while worrying that being tied to a man as old as he is will prove to be a trial for his youthful wife, “Lila.” It is not a problem for her. She has never had a stable life before in a nice house with predictable sources of food and luxuries like a garden or someone to love her.
Ames and his friend Robert are coming to the end of their days, and they both have concerns about their families, and how they are leaving them fixed. Boughton has several children, but he is from a wealthy family, and his wife worked very hard to preserve their money and increase it with her industriousness and careful budgeting.
Boughton’s concerns are more about his family’s happiness, specifically, he is worried about his son John Ames Boughton. Jack, as he is known by, is simply a “bad apple” to most people in Gilead. Jack is restless and cannot find his way in the world.
Reverend Ames worries are more financial as he has not provided financially for a young wife and son because he never dreamed that he would have a family again. He is also concerned that while he is alive, he won’t be able to keep his wife happy and content because of his age.
Such are the dilemmas of Gilead, and while more of them are internal than external, they are rich and intriguing if you enjoy a book that is more about characterization than plot. If you require fast action and suspense, this will not be your kind of reading experience, nor will Marilynne Robinson be your writer, no matter how skillful she is.