Book review: Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

This is another of those highly acclaimed books I am stumbling onto late.

The narrator and subject matter were an interesting choice for me, as I don’t normally care for the opinions or feelings of old preachers. But as far as that class goes, John Ames was one of the better sort — thoughtful, compassionate, not worked up about what young people are doing these days or bemoaning the changing times.

The narrative style is a classic trope — “letter to my son” — characterized by how the author is an elderly man, turning 77 in the book’s timeline, while his son just turns 7. John Ames was born in 1880 and is writing now in the mid 1950s, so he reflects on the World Wars, the Spanish Influenza, and the events of his father’s and grandfather’s generation — namely, slavery and the Civil War.

The most illuminating example of his character was during World War I, when he was struck with the belief that the Spanish Influenza was God’s judgment on the world for the terrible war and bloodshed — but he burned the sermon without delivering it, because once in the pulpit, he realized the sad group of women, who were the only ones left in the pews, were not the right audience to hear it.

The book is set in Iowa, though a lot has to do with Kansas, which was once contested territory as a slave/free state — one of the matches for the Civil War. And racism and bigotry are a theme of the book.

But the plot concerns the return of a prodigal son of Ames’ lifelong friend, Boughton. Unlike Ames, Boughton had many children, but he named his first son for his childless buddy, so John Ames Boughton has a special connection to Ames — the son he didn’t have, nor did he raise, but for whom he still feels responsible.

This is unfortunate, because John Ames Boughton is a wastrel, to put it succinctly. The book nicknames him Jack, but I’m going to call him JAB. JAB’s first notable achievement was knocking up a “very young girl” from a destitute background while he was still in college, and when he was asked if he would marry her, replying, “You’ve seen her.” This is pretty damn odious, considering that the sight of her wasn’t enough to keep him from sleeping with her.

But sure, JAB was a young man. The story takes place twenty years later, and how has he grown since? Answer: alcoholism, no steady employment, and another child by a woman he hasn’t married. The only good thing that can be said about him is that he isn’t trying to abandon his common-law wife and child now. He wants to make a family with them — only she’s black, and this is the 1950s, so interracial marriages are actually still illegal in most states, including where he met her and she still lives with their son.

As John Ames points out to him, their current location — Iowa — is one of the few progressive states where they could at least legally become man and wife. But JAB is pessimistic about their chances — for good reason, considering his own wastrel nature (he has no savings or income to support them) and how much her family hates him. Again, I see why they would, even if she’d chosen to get involved with him. She’d been a teacher, until she got pregnant and the school fired her. As the gossip spread around her Tennessee community, she’d lost all respectability.

So here’s JAB, come to check out the open-minded attitudes of his Iowa hometown. He’s having trouble connecting with his father, so instead he repeatedly seeks out John Ames, who works to overcome his dislike and discomfort of his surrogate son. The book ends with a touching scene where Ames blesses him in public, before JAB leaves forever, shortly before his father’s death (and Ames’ own death).

The book was well written and touched on many themes about American history and culture, belief and unbelief, sons and heirs. Ames has many reflections on his grandfather, who’d been a zealous preacher with unshakable faith in his own righteous cause, convinced he had visions — i.e., a very dangerous sort of preacher. This became problematic as he got older and his mental health deteriorated, and he started giving away any and all of their possessions, including food and money, to anyone who would ask. I can’t imagine being his daughter-in-law, who spends every day making, washing, or patching clothes, only to see them vanish. One of many reasons I am very, very grateful I was not born a woman in the 1800s.

Eventually, after an argument with his son (Ames’ father), the grandfather just vanishes one day. When they get word he’s died in Kansas, twelve-year-old Ames goes with his father to find the grave, pay respects, and give it a proper marker. It’s a hard journey without money for food or shelter, but I felt the sacred importance of it: a pilgrimage to honor your family, your ancestor, to claim ties to the place where his bones are buried. Such a journey cannot be made in comfort.

I noticed that John Ames spent far less time reflecting on his own father. Late in the story, he writes of an argument they had when he was middle-aged, after his parents moved to the Gulf coast (courtesy of their atheist son, who built them a house to rescue his ailing mother from the Iowa winters) and decided not to come back after all for the summers, as they had originally planned. John Ames was displeased with his father’s insistence that he needed to see more of the world outside of Gilead — he found it condescending. But he never spoke of his father’s passing, which seemed strange after all the weight laid on how his grandfather died.

Also, his grandfather had bloody shirts and wore a gun, and there was a mysterious sequence of events I didn’t quite follow, but Wikipedia sums him up as “radical abolitionist who carried out guerrilla activities with John Brown.”

I was rather hoping there’d be more scandals (as that’s the only way I’m really interested in stories about deeply religious people), but the grandfather was at least on the right side of the war.

The writing was good, but I wasn’t completely moved by the story itself — mainly because I failed to be moved by JAB’s wastrel angst, and so much of the plot was about John Ames coming to understand and, finally, bless him with all his heart.

However, I’ve decided to read the sequels, because they seem to be from women’s POV and that’s more interesting to me (and I am really curious about his wife Lila’s background and what she’s going to do after John Ames dies).

I’ll end with one quote that arrested me in its truth:

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.

2 thoughts on “Book review: Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

  1. Very interesting review. I loved the book… I found it incredible that the female author could write so convincingly in the voice of an old male Congregationalist. The book seemed the perfect length and while the “letter to my son” is familiar trope, the construction of the letter was unique in that it felt extemporaneous.

    • Thank you! Yes, the author’s ability to capture the voice of an old preacher who’d grown up at the turn of the 20th century was impressive to me too.

      I didn’t mention this in my review, but I spent the entire book (audiobook, in my case) trying to figure out which denomination he was, as his casual asides about other denominations ruled them out. I grew up immersed in Protestant traditions, but I’m least familiar with Congregationalists.

      I know I called the form a trope, but I didn’t mean it as a criticism. Even familiar tropes can be executed well and rise above the cliche. Though I would poke a little fun at how amazing it is that this old preacher writes well enough for a Pulitzer prize. :P

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