BOOK REVIEW: Gilead

Marilynne Robinson has given us a tremendous read, full of wit, wisdom and humanity. It’s the story of a dying pastor told through his letters to his young son. John Ames has lived a wide and beautiful life in a narrow, dusty Iowa town. The son and grandson of preachers, he traces his family legacy along the contours of American history from the Civil War to the 1950s.

Gillead won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2005, so this review is more than a decade late to the party. But I’m glad to have finally found my way to it. What appealed to me most about this book was the way Ames understands ministry as well as he understands his own disquieted soul, which is to say very deeply. He writes his letters to his son in order to deliver the life lessons and family context the boy will miss without his father.

A widower, Ames remarried a much younger wife which produced a son almost 70 years his junior. The effect of reading letters written while the son is young but intended to be read long after the father is dead, is poignant.

I read a borrowed copy so I couldn’t mark in it, which was a debilitating limitation. I bought my own copy so I could reread Gilead and, probably, underline most of the text. Robinson is able to express complex theological ideas in personal, beautiful, and pithy prose. You will find yourself envying John Ames for the way he can express deep truth, and admiring him for his honesty when he can’t.

Kirkus Reviews said Gilead is "as big as a nation, as quiet as thought, and moving as prayer.” I don’t think I nor John Ames could have said it better.