Believing in Gilead – book review
by Marilynne Robinson
New York: Picador, 2004
paperback, 245 pages
This novel won the Pulitzer Prize for literature. It is this month’s selection for the book club that meets at McCabe’s & Company Booksellers on Lake Drive in Crestline, across the street from the post office. The book club meets at 2 p.m. on the fourth Sunday of each month, and this upcoming meeting is April 29, which is actually the fifth Sunday, but that is what we agreed upon. You see, the first of the month was a Sunday, so a meeting on the fourth Sunday would have given us only three weeks to read the book
Gileadis composed of a series of letters written by an old man for his young son to read some years in the future, after he has grown to adulthood.
The narrator, Congregationalist pastor John Ames, offers advice to his son while telling stories about his life, his family and his community. His doctor has told him that he does not have long to live, due to a serious heart condition. He is already 76 years old, but his son is only 7 years old, the child of a second marriage that happened late in his life.
The title, Gilead? They live in Gilead, Iowa, where the narrator’s father was the pastor before him. Imight point you also to a verse in Jeremiah chapter 8, which begins, “Is there no balm in Gilead?” The narrator’s grandfather was an abolitionist preacher who served as a chaplain in the Union Army during the Civil War, and he lost an eye in battle. Perhaps in reaction to his warlike nature, his son became a pacifist. John Ames lived with both of them and watched their silent, almost subdued battle of wills.
Another battle between fathers and sons occurs between his friend Boughton (a Presbyterian minister), and a favorite but wayward son.
The language ranges from plain to poetic, and the metaphor of water runs through the text as a cleansing rain, a holy substance of great purity.
Ames often ponders the miraculous powers of water, not only in baptism, but also in everyday life. He sometimes quotes a verse from the Bible, but he does not do so very often. He complains that his sermons are not as good as he wants them to be, yet he has kept boxes full of them, stored in his attic. Every one of his sermons has been saved, and now he says that he would destroy them, but he is too old to climb up into the attic and carry them down.
This book is not to be plowed through, seeking an ending or a resolution. It is to be savored, slowly, like a fine wine or a gourmet meal. Read it slowly, and you will find a gem here and there. Hurry through it, and you will miss the beauty of the language, the sentiments and the faith that run through its pages.
Ultimately, while telling the story of conflicts between fathers and sons, this novel is an affirmation of both life and the afterlife.
The New York Magazine Review of Books points out that you need to be a fundamentalist Christian in order to understand everything in this book, and I agree. However, I disagree when they say: “Lacking such faith, you’re probably not going to like it much, either. That is, if you read Robinson with the seriousness and intelligence she deserves” (“The Believer”, Lee Siegel, May 21, 2005)
You can also read a more positive review from Review of Books of Gilead HERE