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| 11.6.06
Gilead: A Novel, by Marilynne Robinson

This was a truly beautiful novel, like an ember glowing after the fire has died. It was not apparent to me from the beginning, however. This is the kind of book that slowly reveals its secrets and its beauty. Like a hard life lived well, meaning is hard won, wrested from the soil, from suffering.

Robinson's primary character, a preacher named John Ames, says it best when (describing baptism) he states, "There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be primarily. It doesn't enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is power in that." (p. 23) In the same way, Gilead acknowledges the sacredness in what may seem from an outsider's point of view to be ordinary lives in an ordinary Midwestern town. The sacredness of Iowa, of all places! It also acknowledges the sacredness in those of us who may consider ourselves beyond redemption.

The novel takes the form of an extended letter from father to son. John Ames is an old man with a young son, and pens this letter turned memoir as an attempt to communicate critical wisdom to his young son from beyond the grave. As the father tells the convoluted tale of a life that was shaped significantly by the experiences, heartaches, and wisdom learned from his forebears a picture of four generations of preachers emerges --each with different styles, personalities, and convictions bound by a common vocation.

John Ames' grandfather was a firebrand; an abolitionist who believed in passionate pursuit of social justice, working for the cause to end slavery, even to the point of advocating violence and revolution. He was noted for strong views and strong convictions, even giving away his own possessions to everyone that had need of them. His prophetic ministry was grounded in a vision from childhood, a vision of Christ shackled in chains that cut so deep they went "to the bone."

In stark contrast, John Ames' father never had a vision, discounted the importance of religious experience, and "went to sit with the Quakers" after the Civil War. The rift between these two strong-willed characters profoundly shapes the narrators life.

John Ames, our narrator throughout the novel, was a preacher during World War I, the Flu epidemic, and World War II. He is an interesting mix of his father and his grandfather. A pacifist, he once wrote a fiery sermon casting the flu as God's judgment against a people to willing to go to war. However he never preached that sermon out of compassion for a suffering flock. Perhaps he is the synthesis of what was best about both his father and his grandfather. A seemingly simple country preacher haunted by the ghosts of his father, grandfather and a late wife who died in childbirth, he has hidden depths with which we become increasingly familiar as the novel progresses.

John Ames' son takes two forms, one literal and the other metaphorical. On a literal level Ames is writing to a son who will come of age only after he is dead. On a deeper level, there is John Ames Boughton --ne'er do well son of his best friend-- who the preacher must come to terms with, forgive, and see God's grace within. Through this revealing of grace the glory of the old man's life, and the dusty Iowa farm town, is revealed.

PUBLISHER: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. New York, 2004; ISBN: 0-374-15389-2
KEYWORDS: fiction, Iowa, preaching, relationships

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