Seldom is a novel so powerful that it stops you in your tracks. A novel by design typically moves the reader along, building a tension that culminates at the three–quarter mark and finds closure on the final pages. Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is not such novel.
Set in 1950s Iowa, the Pulitzer Prize–winning Gilead is the diary-like account of third-generation Congregationalist pastor John Ames. Ames is nearing the end of his days, and writes for the benefit of his young son, the product of a late marriage to a woman half his age. Widowed for the bulk of his long life, Ames finds it necessary to put his thoughts to paper. The result is a work so rich that the reader will have a difficult time believing that is the real Marilynne Robinson and not the fictional John Ames who actually sent the draft of the novel to the publisher.
Slow on action and deep in thought, Gilead meanders a path through Ames’ inner life — a landscape which Robinson paints in prose so perfect that it borders on poetry. With a territory so vivid, an adequate survey would take pages, but I will limit my evaluation to two motifs found in the novel: awkwardness and rootedness.
Gilead oozes with awkwardness. One needs to look no further than the fact that a septuagenarian has a thirtysomething wife to begin to find the feeling of misplacement that pervades the novel. The fact of Ames’ looming death gives him a feeling of doubt with how to deal with his young family. Is he failing them by leaving them only the meager life savings of a widow who never expected a family so late in life? What does he do about his best friend’s estranged son, Ames’ own namesake — John Ames (“Jack “) Boughton, who has begun to take a seemingly excessive interest in Ames’ wife and son?
Awkwardness exists on the metaphysical level as well. During a discussion with Ames, Jack Boughton questions the old pastor on the nature of faith:
“Does it seem right to you,” he said, “that there should be no common language between us? That there should be no way to bring a drop of water to those of us who languish in the flames, or who will? Granting your terms? That between us and you there is a great gulf fixed? How can capital-T Truth not be communicable? That makes no sense to me.”
“I am not sure those are my terms. I would speak of grace in that context,” I said.
“And never of the absence of grace, which would in fact seem to be the issue here. If your terms are granted. I don’t mean to be disrespectful.”
While Ames’ answers fail to satisfy the unbelieving Boughton, Robinson shows us with this exchange (as with many others in the book) that people are at their most awkward when alienated from Truth. Even grace itself is an awkward concept, yet it is its beauty which makes our awkwardness fall away.
In our age of mass culture, the idea of a person having roots is quickly fading. Postmodernism is highly suspect of tradition, and looking back often puts one in danger of not being progressive. The locales where people once let their roots dig deep have suffered as well, with access to global travel and communication only a click of the mouse away. We citizens of the twenty-first century find ourselves in a place and time where sports stadiums reach obsolescence after twenty years and the elderly are counted as mere denizens of the society that got us all into the mess from which the rest of us are trying to emerge.
Ames finds his rootedness in the town of Gilead, Iowa, where his father likewise was a pastor. He has lived seventy-four of his seventy-six years in the town, and connects with the land around him as if it were integral to his being:
I love the prairie! So often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turn radiant at once, that the word “good” so profoundly affirmed in my soul that I am amazed I should be allowed to witness such a thing. . . Here on the prairie there is nothing to distract attention from the evening and the morning, nothing on the horizon to abbreviate or to delay. Mountains would seem an impertinence from that point of view.
Ames’ familial roots also affect him deeply. His grandfather was a wild-eyed prophetic-type preacher who fought in the Civil War and shed blood for the cause of abolition. His father, in reaction to that fiery paradox of a man, became a preacher for whom pacifism was a defining mark.
The potential up-rooting of Ames’ immediate family looms large throughout the novel. A wife and a son whom he never expected so late in life are a source of both joy and unrest for the ailing Ames.
However, it is Ames’ theological rootedness which gives him an unearthly sense of calm as he confronts his life at the end. An admirer of Calvin and Barth, with a strange respect for Feuerbach, the Congregationalist Ames is a man who has deeply studied but not perfected his faith. Doubts and questions do appear, yet never for too long. Amidst Ames’ insecurities and inconsistencies, the Christ of his faith sustains him and gives him joy.
Gilead is an uncommon novel. To read it is to be haunted by its prose and harassed by its profundity. The Pulitzer Prize has never been more deserving.