Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Broché, 291 pages
Twenty-four years after her first novel, Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson returns with an intimate tale of three generations from the Civil War to the twentieth century: a story about fathers and sons and the spiritual battles that still rage at America’s heart. Writing in the tradition of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful, spare, and spiritual prose allows “even the faithless reader to feel the possibility of transcendent order” (Slate). In the luminous and unforgettable voice of Congregationalist minister John Ames, Gilead reveals the human condition and the often unbearable beauty of an ordinary life.
A good friend has been pushing this book to me for a while now, saying that this is probably one book I will like. Note that this friend and I had different tastes in books, and it’s only just recently that we started reading similar ones and it was mostly because of the book club picks. If this book was recommended to me say, early in 2011, I wouldn’t have picked it up, but since I feel like I’ve been growing as a reader, I was actually quite excited to read this when I finally found a copy. This wasn’t my first choice for our book club’s book of the month for April, because there was an initial plan of reading this book with a some friends. But I guess everyone else wanted to read it for April, and who am I to disagree with that, right?
Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is actually a long letter of Reverend John Ames, a dying pastor, to his young son. There are stories of his father, and his grandfather, of his first wife, of his friendship with old Boughton and his complicated relationship with Boughton’s youngest son who was named after him. He mused about life, and death, and wrote what he can to give his son a memory of him, his old father, who can only do so much now that he’s about to leave his family to go to his Heavenly Father.
Gilead felt like a pretty short book, and I was kind of expecting that I would finish it real quick. But instead, I found myself reading it a lot slower than I expected. The book was slow, and it meandered, and its lack of chapter breaks made it a little bit harder to devour (what, I’m used to the normal structure of books), but I guess there was a reason for that. Gilead is actually meant for slow reading because of its content. Gilead is really more about…memories. Wishes. Regrets. Hope. It’s a journal and a letter, and you just can’t rush through something like it because it contains wisdom from the eyes of someone who has lived long. The number of pages I have dog-eared in my copy is the sure indication of this, but I do not regret a thing because there were just too many beautiful passages in the book. Some examples:
The twinkling of an eye. That is the most wonderful expression. I’ve thought from time to time it was the best thing in life, that little incandescence you see in people when the charm of the thing strikes them, or the humor of it. “The light of the eyes rejoiceth the heart.” That’s a fact. (p.61)
Now that I look back, it seems to me that in all that deep darkness, a miracle was preparing. So I am right to remember it as a blessed time, and myself as waiting in confidence, even if I had no idea what I was waiting for. (p.64)
I must be gracious. My only role is to be gracious. Clearly I must somehow contrive to think graciously about him since he makes it such a point of seeing right through me. I believe I have made some progress on that front through prayer, though there is clearly much more progress to be made, much more praying to be done. (p.145)
And grace is the great gift. So to be forgiven is only half the gift. The other half is that we also can forgive, restore, and liberate, and therefore we can feel the will of God enacted through us, which is the great restoration of ourselves to ourselves. (p.190)
I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave – that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm. And therefore, this courage allows us, as the old men said, to make ourselves useful. (p.290)
Many times, I had to stop a bit in reading this because some of the passages hit home, a bit too hard. I have to stop and reflect on them, and sometimes I feel the tinge of guilt in some because I know that I have failed in what Reverend Ames has written. That particular bit about graciousness is a hard to swallow, because I find myself being in his position ever so often, and it’s always a hard battle to think graciously of someone who you somehow dislike. I can’t say that I am a truly gracious person just yet, but I definitely agree that there is a lot of praying yet to be done. Will you pray with me about this?
There was a little question of whether this book was a sad one before we started discussing it online, but our moderator just said that it’s a book that will make us heave deep sighs. And she was right. Deep sighs, indeed. I found myself close to tears in the end, and it made me wonder what kind of legacy would I be leaving, and if I would be ever able to say or write that same last line in the book with peace and surrender, just as Reverend Ames did for his son. I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep.
My friends (who I have linked below) have said it a lot, but I will say it here, too: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson is beautiful. There is no other word that can be used to really describe it.
There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient. (p. 287)
My copy: paperback, bought from NBS