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Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Beyond Faith

A small town in Iowa, an old preacher awaiting death, the l950s, a family driven by zealotry, a prodigal son, a decrepit church, the Lord -- these are the raw materials of Marilynne Robinson's new novel Gilead.

To many a 21st century Californian, this may well sound like a horse pill of a novel. That's certainly how it sounded to me. When esteemed critics endorsed it, I only glanced at their raves. Nor did I care that it took Robinson nearly twenty-five years to publish her second novel (after her extraordinarily rich but very different Housekeeping, from l981). Even the news that Gilead had been shortlisted for both the PEN/Faulkner award and the National Critics prize barely registered with me.

Utterly weary of dull-as-gruel religious platitudes, I didn't want (and still don't want) to read about God the father. Nor did I care to hear theological musings about the importance of being "saved", no matter how elegantly such speculations might be phrased.

To my surprise, my fears proved unfounded -- this book has little interest in traditional piety. Like the narrator Reverend Ames, who at age twelve is spirited off to barren Kansas by his unhappy father, and finds himself in a time and a place he cannot forget, so too does Gilead turn out to be not so much about religion (or even a plot) as it is about being in an all-encompassing place.

The reader finds himself in a landscape saturated by caring. We walk the dark streets of the little town of Gilead with the insomniac Reverend, wait for dawn with him in his plain church, hear him fret about his young wife and child and a man who might prey on them when he's gone -- and one can't help but to care right along with him.

Along the way the novel brings up difficult realities, for believers and non-believers alike. Whether or not we happen to see visions of God, some people do, and this book reminds us that sometimes those visions can drive a man to a sort of crazed greatness. One such person was Reverend Ames' own grandfather, who at sixteen saw a vision of the Lord reaching out to him, his arms in chains.

"Those irons had rankled him right down to his bones," the grandfather said of his vision. Like the infamous abolitionist John Brown, the grandfather goes on to throw his whole existence against slavery. He becomes a hero of sorts, but his zealotry divides his family, just as the civil war divided the country. And no matter how divinely inspired, his single-mindedness drives him to a lonely death in a desolate land.

This sort of zeal would be enough to turn many a son against his father. In this story, both the zealot's son and his grandson become preachers, but the son turns against war, and the grandson tires of his own sermons. Our narrator, the grandson Reverend Ames, struggles to keep the weight of the pulpit out of his words, even when he speaks about issues of faith. He finds his calling in writing. "For me writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn't writing prayers," he says. "You feel you are with someone. I feel I am with you now, whatever that can mean."

Reverend Ames, through whom we live in this book, is a troubled old man, but he speaks his mind gently, putting his thoughts down on paper to a seven-year-old who can't yet read. The reverend knows his heart will give out soon, and he won't see his son grow up, but he knows too that his son cannot understand that, and he sees this as a blessing. "I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again," he says at one point, utterly overcome by the beauty of a single line of oaks.

Readers of this book will share, for at least a moment or two, those amazing things.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
November 19, 2004
256 pages
ISBN: 0-3741-5389-2