Day 281: Gilead

Cover for GileadBest Book of the Week!
Gilead is the novel that precedes Marilynne Robinson’s Home, although it is set in the same time frame and covers some of the same territory. This novel won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

John Ames is an elderly Congregationalist minister in 1956 who believes he is dying. He has a much younger wife and young son, a surprising blessing in his old age. The novel is in the form of a diary addressed to his son in the expectation that he will not live long enough to personally pass on his family history and advice.

Ames lives in Gilead, a small Iowa town on the prairie near the border with Kansas. The town was founded by abolitionists during the Free State wars in Kansas as a refuge for slaves and fighters the likes of John Brown. Ames’ grandfather, also a minister of the warrior-for-God ilk, had visions of God and once preached a sermon in a bloody shirt with a gun in his belt. With that upbringing, his son was naturally a pacifist, who left the church for awhile after that sermon to worship with the Quakers. One of Ames’ most powerful memories is of the journey he made with his father to Kansas, in terrible conditions, to retrieve the body of his grandfather, who had returned there.

Although Gilead is certainly about the history of the town–the wars, the Depression, the Dust Bowl years–it is more about the relationship between fathers and sons, both from the secular and religious points of view. Not only does it explore the relationships within Ames’ own family, but it also looks at that between Ames and the son of his best friend the Presbyterian minister–Ames’ surrogate son–John Ames Boughton.

The story of John Ames Boughton is the one more thoroughly explored in the sequel Home, although interestingly enough, Gilead tells Boughton’s story more explicitly, while Home, narrated by Boughton’s sister Glory, only hints at some of the facts.

The novel, a celebration of life and faith, is beautifully written and full of ideas to ponder. That being said, as I do not particularly have a religious background or bent, I did not fully understand some of the narrator’s ideas and preoccupations. I found Home, although told from the point of view of the same goodness and piety, a more accessible novel than Gilead.

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