"Have you read Gilead yet?" a neighbor asked enthusiastically, approaching me in our city neighborhood. I told her I had just started Marilynne Robinson's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. My friend, a physician from a Unitarian background, went on to describe why she loved the book. The aging protagonist, Reverend John Ames, resonated for her because of his wise counsel to his young son. My neighbor admitted that parenting can elicit mixed motives, and personal ego often plays too large a role. She admired how careful and deliberate Ames was in this important task.
Why has Gilead, a quiet, slow-paced novel set in rural Iowa in 1956, captured the imagination of twenty-first century readers from urban professionals to heartland believers? Perhaps literary critic James Wood, writing in The New York Times Book Review, answers this question best when he calls the novel "a beautiful work-demanding, grave and lucid …Robinson's words have a spiritual force that's very rare in contemporary fiction."
It is rare, indeed, to feature a minister as a protagonist who is not a stick figure of goodness or a Sinclair Lewis-type Elmer Gantry. Instead, John Ames is a 76-year-old man of faith who has grown in spiritual maturity as he has aged. When I finally came to the last page of Gilead, I cried. Tears certainly cannot be the aesthetic standard by which to judge a great work. (After all, I cried reading Erich Segal's Love Story 30 years ago.) Rather, I knew I would miss Ames and the journey we had taken together.
Robinson deftly structures the novel as a series of letters Ames writes to his young son. As death approaches from a heart condition, Ames feels compelled to share who he is and what he has learned in his life. Ames has lived in Gilead, Iowa, for most of his life. It is here that he ministered for 40-plus years after inheriting a Congregational pulpit from his father. His first wife died in childbirth. He labors on alone taking on the spiritual and physical burdens the best he can. The rhythms of the weeks and years in the life of a church are evoked in the letters. When Ames moves from his reflections on the past to present-day observation of his son, he is filled with wonder. He comments with great elegance on the way he plays with friends and helps his mother.
Far from being polemical, Ames's writing is winsome on every page. He is a rich, full-bodied character. I was reminded of Jane Austen's remark about her Pride and Prejudice character Elizabeth Bennet: "I must confess that I think her as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print." Bravado aside, I'm confident Robinson could make a similar claim for Gilead's hero, John Ames. And she would have many readers agreeing with her.
The writing is extraordinary-lyrical and poetic. For instance, speaking of his earthly existence, Rev. Ames tells his son, "I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is human beauty in it. And I can't believe that, when we have been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence."
And reflecting on the rhythms of a life of faith, Ames writes, "Every day is holy but the Sabbath is set apart so that the holiness of time can be experienced." Besides these more abstract reflections, Ames has observations on Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Barth, and many more theologians.
Marilynne Robinson was recently named the director of the prestigious Iowa Writer's Workshop, the school where she has taught for many years. (The workshop's alumni include another great religious writer, Flannery O'Connor.) With Gilead, Robinson has succeeded masterfully in accomplishing what literature at its best achieves. She allows the reader to "see feelingly." And because Robinson's literary canvas here evokes many deep spiritual realities, the novel is well worth reading. I would recommend it to anyone, but it is a "must read" for readers of this magazine.