At a moment in cultural history dominated by the shallow, the superficial, the quick fix, Marilynne Robinson is a miraculous anomaly: a writer who thoughtfully, carefully and tenaciously explores some of the deepest questions confronting the human species. A consummate artist, a scrupulous scholar, a believing Christian and a genuinely radical thinker, Robinson approaches whatever she undertakes with the kind of gravitas one seldom encounters today. In place of the buzzwords and half-baked ideas that pass for conventional wisdom, she offers something truly unconventional and certainly much closer to wisdom.
“Gilead” is only Robinson’s second novel, appearing 23 years after her critically acclaimed first novel, “Housekeeping.” “Critically acclaimed” somewhat understates the outpouring of praise that greeted her debut. Although “Housekeeping” was not exactly a page-turner, this slow-moving, lovingly detailed, beautifully written account of two orphaned sisters growing up in a makeshift Montana household resonated with all kinds of readers as well as critics.
In the years that followed, Robinson published two remarkable nonfiction books in some ways more compelling than her novel. Her heartfelt and disturbing “Mother Country” (1989) pondered the question of how a country like Britain, long regarded as a bastion of liberty, fair play, decency and democracy, could allow the welfare of its citizens to be gravely endangered by the plutonium at Sellafield (formerly called Windscale).
Nearly a decade later, in her essay collection, “The Death of Adam,” Robinson presented a radically different way of looking at the old controversy between Darwin and the Bible, making a forceful case for the benefits of a system based on altruism rather than survival of the fittest. She also challenged stereotypes about America’s “puritan” heritage by going back to the actual teachings of John Calvin and his followers, who were often more tolerant than their Anglican, Catholic and Lutheran contemporaries, and who, far from espousing a “Protestant work-ethic,” unceasingly urged charity even for the “undeserving.”
In “Gilead,” these two sides of Robinson’s temperament, the artist and the essayist, the imaginative and the expository, come together in a poignant, absorbing, lyrically written novel in the form of a letter being written in 1956 by a 76-year-old Iowa minister, John Ames, to his 7-year-old son. Ames has been told that his heart is failing. Knowing he won’t be around to talk with the boy when he comes of age, he wants to put as much of himself as he can in writing.
At first blush, the rambling meditations of a small-town Midwestern preacher may sound about as enticing a reading experience as “Forty Years an Ohio Physician,” the fictitious manuscript pressed upon Sheridan Whiteside in “The Man Who Came to Dinner.” But “Gilead” is a wonderfully readable book -- moving, compelling and fascinating in any number of ways. First and foremost, in John Ames, Robinson has created a marvelously real, thinking, feeling character. Even before his character unfolds, his situation piques our curiosity: How, we wonder, did this pious old man come to marry a much younger woman and father a child at the rather advanced age of 69? How do his religious beliefs help him face his own mortality? All this and more is revealed.
A second element generating suspense is the mystery of Ames’ antipathy to a young man named after him: his best friend’s son, John Ames Boughton. We learn the reasons behind his attitude and witness the way in which he and his namesake come to a new understanding.
The third powerful thread in the narrative is Ames family history, a tale of conflict between two ministers: Ames’ father, a staunch pacifist, and grandfather, a pistol-wielding abolitionist, one of those ardently dedicated souls who rushed to the violently contested territory of “Bleeding Kansas” determined to see it enter the Union as a free state. A visionary, a saint, an impossible man to live with, who would -- and often did -- give the shirt off his back to anyone in need, he preached his followers into the war with fiery sermons against slavery, fighting bravely in that conflict himself, losing an eye.
His fierce zealotry alienated his son, and the war that was a sacred cause to him seemed to his son, like all war, a tragedy. Although our narrator (and perhaps Robinson) comes down on the side of his pacifist father, both men are portrayed with deep understanding and sympathy: “We had visions in those days,” the old man declares. “The President, General Grant, once called Iowa the shining star of radicalism. But what is left here in Iowa? What is left here in Gilead?”
Remembering his grandfather, Ames tells his son: “There have been heroes here, and saints and martyrs, and I want you to know that. Because that is the truth, even if no one remembers it.... Those saints got old and the times changed and they just seemed like eccentrics and nuisances, and no one wanted to listen to their fearsome old sermons or hear their wild old stories. I say it to my shame -- it got so I didn’t really like to be with my grandfather, and that’s the truth.”
Robinson’s decision to cast this novel as a letter endows it with a tremendous sense of immediacy and intimacy. Not only do we get to overhear a man in the deeply private process of thinking to himself, we also feel the urgency of his desire to share what he has learned with his son. Like all of Robinson’s writing, “Gilead” is full of passages that beg to be read aloud, complex thoughts and emotions expressed with a felicity as engaging as it is illuminating. Most of all, in this book, through the wide-open eyes of her aging hero, Robinson manages to convey the miracle of existence itself:
“I sometimes feel as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that.... And I can’t believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In Eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets.”
At a time when many of us may tend automatically to associate religion with reactionary politics and even fanaticism, Robinson reminds us of its other side, and through her thoughtful, luminous writing expands the vision of the world all of us share. *