Monday, March 14, 2016

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Today it's time to celebrate a few things that I rarely do!  One is blogging!  Look at me, blogging like a blogger.  My life has been throwing up one hurdle after another ever since last summer, so by the time I get home from work the only thing that my ruined brain will tolerate is the binge watching of Netflix with occasional breaks for reading books when I manage to feel guilty enough to turn off the TV.  The other thing I rarely do is go to a book group.  The book group is great, enlightening and engaging.  I, however, read terribly slowly especially when it comes to books I "should" be reading and books that are challenging.  Book group books are often both.  That and my practiced disinterest in most of the classics tends to keep me from being a regular attender.

My own failings aside, I read this month's book group read and attended the conversation last night.  This month's selection was Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, a book that certainly benefited from discussion.

Gilead is Robinson's Pulitzer winning depiction of the Reverend John Ames, who, in his mid-70s, has been diagnosed with angina pectoris and expects that he will soon reach the end of his mortal life.  Ames, lifelong pastor of a congregationalist church in Gilead, Iowa, has a much younger wife and a young son.  Gilead takes the form of his writing to his adult son who will grow up without his father.  What emerges is a quiet reflection on life, faith, and forgiveness that reflects Ames' joy in a life lived and his hope for his son's future.

Admittedly, I struggled a bit with Gilead.  Had I not been striving to finish it to achieve my sporadic attendance at book group, I likely would have laid it aside.  The book, though profound in wisdom and beautifully written, is thoroughly a character study and suffers for the lack of a driving plot.  The tangential nature of the old man's thoughts migrates from topic to topic so that when I arrived at a break, it was easy to put down and not so easy to pick back up.

That said, there were several things I appreciated about Gilead.  For one, it is a positive portrayal of Christians in fiction without the cheesy bent of books actually labeled Christian fiction.  This is, unfortunately, startlingly rare.  Gilead is permeated with Ames' joy in the trappings of Christianity.  Instead of depicting a man caught up in his own righteousness, Gilead offers a portrait of a man who knows his own weakness and is ever struggling against it.  This isn't the judging, hypocritical Christian of stereotype but a realistic picture of both the pain and joy of earthly religion.

Secondly, I was very impressed with Robinson's reverend's thoughts on the Bible and on an assortment of Christian precepts.  In his writings, Ames considers the ten commandments, the nature of grace, the difficulty and necessity of forgiveness, and God's providence.  Ames is awed by the ordinary miracles of God's creation and feels the significance of preaching and blessing and baptizing God's chosen.  Robinson renders his reflection on his life and his hopes for his son's future with tenderness, wisdom, and poetry that make this book linger in the mind after the last page is turned.

Gilead is one of those books that has grown on me since finishing it, and after the book discussion I appreciate it still more.  Christians will like this book for its fresh perspective on the things of God and for the familiarity of a Christian life.  Non-Christians stand to appreciate a portrait of a "real deal" Christian that makes Christianity a bit more human and accessible without ever dumbing down its significance. 
"She has watched every moment of your life, almost, and she loves you as God does, to the marrow of your bones.  So that is the honoring of the child.  You see how it is godlike to love the being of someone.  Your existence is a delight to us."
 (No disclaimer required.  This one's from my very own personal library.)


  1. I do like the intent of the book but I really need a plot to keep me motivated with a book. This book sounds like it's well written but I suspect it may not be for me.

  2. I've heard good things about Robinson, but I've never read anything by her. This one sounds like it has lovely writing. If there's no plot, though, I think I would get bored with it really easily. Glad you came to appreciate the book, even if you didn't love it.