Gilead (2004)

by Marilynn Robinson

In the epistolary novel Gilead, an elderly, sickly preacher is writing a letter to the seven-year-old son he won’t live to shepherd into adulthood. In gracious, literate prose, Rev. John Ames imparts what he wants the boy to know about their family history and about faith.

The pastor of a Calvinist church in small-town Gilead, Iowa, Rev. Ames comes from a line of preachers, including his father and grandfather, who were estranged over the grandfather’s militant abolitionism. Having lost his wife and infant daughter decades before, Ames lived alone until a vagabond woman half his age came into Gilead and after a while said, “You should marry me.” The second wife remains a mystery through much of Gilead; her story is told in the later novel Lila.

Gilead is in many ways a novel about fathers and sons. A subplot involving another father-son pair, Ames’s friend the Rev. John Boughton, Gilead’s Presbyterian minister, and his wayward son Jack presents a moral conundrum for Ames.

Ames’s thorough goodness might be beyond belief if Robinson hadn’t handled it as a testimony to rock-solid faith. As the reverend meditates about the love of spouses, friends, parents, children, and God; about the possibility of change; about forgiveness and hope; about the transcendence of the natural world, readers may decide to keep Gilead nearby to return to as spiritual reading, not just as a novel.

Gilead is the first book in a trilogy. It was followed by Home (2008), which features the Boughtons, and Lila (2014).


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