I bought a copy of Gilead because it won the Pulitzer Prize of Fiction, and it appeared on a list of best twenty-first century novels. It is written by Marilynne Robinson, who was born in 1943 and grew up in Sandoint, Idaho. She graduated from Pembroke College magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, receiving her doctorate in English from University of Washington. Ms Robinson began teaching at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1991, retiring in 2016. Apart from Gilead, she has written three highly acclaimed novels and numerous essays and works of non-fiction. Her novels are noted for their thematic depiction of both rural life and faith.
The novel begins in 1956 in Gilead, an unincorporated community in Adair County, Iowa, about 100 km southwest of Des Moines. The Reverend John Ames, toward the end of his life, is beginning a letter to his young son which constitutes the book. Ames is at least a third generation Congregational minister, and his father and grandfather were ordained ministers in Iowa and Kansas.. His first wife and daughter died, and he married a younger woman who visited his church about ten years ago. The story includes anecdotes about his father, his childhood, his brother, Edward – a very bright atheist, and the search for the grave of his grandfather. A particular focus is on the Broughton family; the father is a Presbyterian minister, also in his seventies; the son, Jack, is an enigmatic figure, who has a special relationship with Ames, dating back to his childhood, but Ames and Jack have difficulty confronting each other about Jacks sins and his agnosticism. The language is gentle and pious; the setting is, as Edward says, ‘a backwater’. Any significant actions have largely taken place somewhere else or in the past. Nonetheless, this is a novel that captures the reader’s attention through the intellectual honest and simplicity of the Reverend Ames.
This isn’t a book about religion or faith per se, though there are references to one or the other on nearly every page. Rather, it is a novel about the challenges of living a caring, devout, unadorned life, while the external world goes through its thoughtless, irresponsible gyrations. The title of the novel raises the question of Jeremiah: “Is there no balm in Gilead?” The answer has been the subject of religious debate for centuries. There was a balm made from a tree in the region of Gilead (in Jordan), but how effective was it? Gilead was a place famous for its iniquitous people. There is also a traditional spiritual praising the balm of Gilead in spiritual terms. Perhaps Ms Robinson’s intention was to stimulate her readers to consider the merits of Reverend Ames’ lifestyle.
The only reservation I had about this book is whether there should have been more engagement with members of the congregation to add dimensions to the question about the balm of Gilead, and less of the thoughts and musings of Reverend Ames, who, after all, is a clearly defined character from early in the novel.