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Volume 17, Issue 4: Ex Libris

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Reviewed by Brendan O'Donnell

The Reverend John Ames writes to his son in one place, "I heard a man say once that Christians worship sorrow. That is by no means true. But we do believe there is a sacred mystery in it, it's fair to say that."1 Marilynne Robinson's Gilead abounds in such plainspoken eloquence, approaching some of the heaviest questions and situations that will grace a man's life with a reverence and dignity all but unheard of in modern letters. Gilead is a serious and beautiful read, almost impossibly so in places, and expresses such profound themes with an astonishing, and quite often devastating, artistry.

Regarding plot, the book does not offer an order of actions and events. Instead, we surmise from the pages that Reverend John Ames, of Gilead, Iowa, is dying of heart disease, and has taken upon himself to write letters to his son to tell the boy of his "begats." The preacher himself is a son and grandson of preachers, for whom he is named. John Ames the grandfather was a violent abolitionist Freesoiler who sought out the Kansas territory in the 1850s at the behest of a vision of the Lord. John Ames the father was a pacifist who defied his father's ways to the point of simmering bitterness. Our narrator has spent the majority of his life alone; his first wife and child died shortly after childbirth, and his domestic solitude spanned the decades until his late sixties, when he met his second wife who then gave him a son. In the months-long course of writing the memoir, the apostate grown son of his best friend, the Presbyterian preacher named Boughton, returns to town after years of prodigal absence. Boughton, out of sympathy for his friend's childless loneliness, had christened him John Ames Boughton. Our narrator wonders whether the apostate 40-year-old has designs on his soon-to-be widowed wife and orphaned son.
This storyline, such as it is, must be inferred and cobbled together in places; enough goes unsaid in Robinson's text that the reader must patiently sort through the omissions of details as diligently as he must through that which is revealed. Robinson so thoroughly inhabits John Ames that she makes on as if she knows only what he knows, and suspects only what he suspects. But her precision as a writer certainly extends beyond her carefully deliberated words all the way out to her structure and arrangement. To get at what we know we're missing requires that we at once draw near to the details and subtleties of her prose and also stand back in order to sort out what sort of lacework her threads have formed. For we also know that she is John Ames' creator, and his thoughts are not her thoughts, and she has orchestrated much more than he lets on.
Her most startling omission, the name of the boy to whom this epistle is addressed, demonstrates her artistry. We may well guess that he bears his father's name, but the nameless boy has several namesakes that he might take after—a violent great-grandfather, a grandfather who lost the faith, a ne'er-do-well surrogate older brother, John Ames Boughton, not to mention a father who spent a great part of his life heated by embers of resentment for all these men, almost without knowing it. As much as John Ames wants to raise his son, we may discern many levels of relief that he won't live long enough to burden his son with the Ames temperament that has caused rifts between all the fathers and sons who have borne that name. Early on we find him reflecting, almost hopefully, on the boy's resemblance to his mother: "You're like your mother, so serious about everything. The old men call you Deacon, but that seriousness isn't all from my side of the family. I'd never seen anything like it until I met her. Well, putting aside my grandfather."2
Gilead, in great part, concerns itself with the tensions that grow up between fathers and sons, tensions made far more stark and interesting by the characters' resistance to the impulses driving that conflict. John Ames writes of his senior that "it grieved my father bitterly that the last words he said to his father were very angry words and there could never be any reconciliation between them in this life. He did truly honor his father, generally speaking, and it was hard for him to accept that things should have ended the way they did."3 In that way, it strikes a peculiarly Christian note; never are we to see the chasms between fathers and sons as normal and healthy, as much modern literature is wont to do. Indeed, one finds expressed, in ways explicit and subtle, that John Ames believes the great gulfs that form are a tragedy, but will also be overcome by grace and made right on the last day.
And how this whole book waxes doxological, how it yearns for grace, and how it finds grace everywhere! "`He will wipe the tears from all faces.' It takes nothing from the loveliness of the verse to say that is exactly what will be required."4 Gilead, in its quiet way, defies the strain of American literature that sees its Protestant heritage as but another steamer trunk among all the psychological baggage. It dares, unfashionably, to present unbelief as needlessly complicated and lonely; what's more, it believes that faithfulness is the only secure vantage point to find the grace and mystery in sorrow and to take in this impossibly beautiful world.

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