A Prodigal's Return
Twenty-three years is a long time between novels, especially when the first was a much-lauded award winner that readers embraced with cult-like devotion. But that's how long Marilynne Robinson has kept us waiting for her new novel, Gilead. Like Housekeeping, which won the 1981 PEN/ Hemingway Award, Gilead is neither lengthy nor wordy, yet it grapples with big issues and tells stories spanning more than one lifetime. One suspects that Robinson has spent the last two decades distilling these stories to their very essence, honing her prose with a subtlety that begs close reading. But Gilead is no mere exercise in fine writing to be admired for its narrative precision; it builds slowly and steadily, its full emotional force almost sneaking up on the reader.
If Housekeeping is remembered as a story about a family of women, Gilead is most certainly the story of a family of men—specifically clergymen. Written in the form of a long letter or journal, it is the last testament of Reverend John Ames, age 77, to a young son he knows he will not live to see reach manhood. Ames is the last in a line of preachers. His grandfather came west before the Civil War to fight in Kansas alongside John Brown, lost an eye while a chaplain in the war, and spent his final years in the small town of Gilead, Iowa, embarrassing the family with public eccentricities and petty thievery. His son, Ames' father, was a pacifist minister who lived at odds with his father's bloody abolitionist past.
The present Ames, the narrator, has spent his entire life in Gilead, a once-thriving community close to the Kansas border that served as a by-station on the Underground Railroad. Though he's had his requisite share of sadness and happiness, Ames has had a relatively undramatic life. No life is truly uneventful when scrutinized, though, and as Ames records his thoughts for his young son the inner drama unfolds.
Most disturbing for this pious man has been his uneasy relationship with Jack Boughton, the son of a lifelong friend. Jack was named for Ames, an honor bestowed when it seemed he would never have a child of his own. But rather than embrace this namesake as his own son, Ames has always distrusted Jack. Not surprising in a novel about the disquiet love between fathers and sons, Jack's is a classic prodigal son story. He has led a profligate life, returning now to Gilead because his father is dying. Ames wants to protect his young wife and child from Jack's wiles, torn between warning them about the younger man's past and his pastoral duty to forgive a seemingly unrepentant sinner.
It is Jack's revelation of an unexpected truth that constitutes the climax of the story, but for the most part this is not a novel where plot is at the fore. There are plenty of stories within it, to be sure, told with the earnestness of timeless parables. But at its core, the book is largely about character and faith, about relationships between sons and fathers, not least of all the paramount relationship between the human son and the divine father. Robinson clearly knows her theology, particularly the staunch Protestantism that was the bedrock of the American westward migration, but doesn't impose an authorial voice on the narrative. Rather, she admirably allows Ames, with all his self-perceived moral flaws and uncertainties, to speak for himself about his beliefs.
Many writers might have centered this story on the more colorful, elder Ames, who wielded the battle-ax against slavery, or his son who took up the equally controversial cause of pacifism during wartime. But their dramas remain peripheral. By focusing on the last, seemingly least consequential Ames, Robinson limns the gentler, if no less righteous drama, of an inner life committed to faith and the grace of God. As he surveys his life of the cloth, Ames comes to recognize the "thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient." Doctrine is not belief, he suggests, but only one way of talking about belief. Surely this quietly sublime work of fiction is another. BookPage Reviews 2004 December
The wait since 1981 and Housekeeping is over. Robinson returns with a second novel that, however quiet in tone and however delicate of step, will do no less than tell the story of America-and break your heart. A reverend in tiny Gilead, Iowa, John Ames is 74, and his life is at its best-and at its end. Half a century ago, Ames's first wife died in childbirth, followed by her new baby daughter, and Ames, seemingly destined to live alone, devoted himself to his town, church, and people-until the Pentecost Sunday when a young stranger named Lila walked into the church out of the rain and, from in back, listened to Ames's sermon, then returned each Sunday after. The two married-Ames was 67-had a son, and life began all over again. But not for long. In the novel's present (mid-1950s), Ames is suffering from the heart trouble that will soon bring his death. And so he embarks upon the writing of a long diary, or daily letter-the pages of Gilead-addressed to his seven-year-old son so he can read it when he's grown and know not only about his absent father but his own history, family, and heritage. And what a letter it is! Not only is John Ames the most kind, observant, sensitive, and companionable of men to spend time with, but his story reaches back to his patriarchal Civil War great-grandfather, fiery preacher and abolitionist; comes up to his grandfather, also a reverend and in the War; to his father; and to his own life, spent in his father's church. This long story of daily life in deep Middle America-addressed to an unknown and doubting future-is never in the slightest way parochial or small, but instead it evokes on the pulse the richest imaginable identifying truths of what America was. Robinson has composed, with its cascading perfections of symbols, a novel as big as a nation, as quiet as thought, and moving as prayer. Matchless and towering. Kirkus Reviews 2004 August #2
Fans of Robinson's acclaimed debut Housekeeping (1981) will find that the long wait has been worth it. From the first page of her second novel, the voice of Rev. John Ames mesmerizes with his account of his life-and that of his father and grandfather. Ames is 77 years old in 1956, in failing health, with a much younger wife and six-year-old son; as a preacher in the small Iowa town where he spent his entire life, he has produced volumes and volumes of sermons and prayers, "[t]trying to say what was true." But it is in this mesmerizing account-in the form of a letter to his young son, who he imagines reading it when he is grown-that his meditations on creation and existence are fully illumined. Ames details the often harsh conditions of perishing Midwestern prairie towns, the Spanish influenza and two world wars. He relates the death of his first wife and child, and his long years alone attempting to live up to the legacy of his fiery grandfather, a man who saw visions of Christ and became a controversial figure in the Kansas abolitionist movement, and his own father's embittered pacifism. During the course of Ames's writing, he is confronted with one of his most difficult and long-simmering crises of personal resentment when John Ames Boughton (his namesake and son of his best friend) returns to his hometown, trailing with him the actions of a callous past and precarious future. In attempting to find a way to comprehend and forgive, Ames finds that he must face a final comprehension of self-as well as the worth of his life's reflections. Robinson's prose is beautiful, shimmering and precise; the revelations are subtle but never muted when they come, and the careful telling carries the breath of suspense. There is no simple redemption here; despite the meditations on faith, even readers with no religious inclinations will be captivated. Many writers try to capture life's universals of strength, struggle, joy and forgiveness-but Robinson truly succeeds in what is destined to become her second classic. PW Reviews 2004 September #4