Tuesday, July 5, 2011


Marilynne Robinson

Gilead is the first book I have read on my new Kindle. It was a reader's review book on the Diane Rhem show last week and, when I checked the Kindle store, there it was. 

Marilynne Robinson won a Pulitzer Prize for Gilead in 2005. The book is written as a journal or long letter, from John Ames, a 76 year old Congregationalist minister, to his six year old son, to be read some day when that son is an adult. Ames knows that he will not live to see his son grow up. In fact he is expecting to die at any moment because of his heart condition.

John Ames is the third generation of preachers in his family, all named John Ames, I believe. His grandfather, and his church, helped John Brown when he was raiding pro-slavery communities in Kansas before the Civil War and he may have ridden in some of those raids himself. His father was pastor in the same church in the (fictional) town of Gilead Iowa that Ames is now, now being 1957.

There are a number of major themes running through the book. Mortality, of course, but also romantic love as an unexpected, uncontrollable force. Ames fell for, and married, a much younger woman, the mother of his six year old son, at the age of 69. One of the other characters has had a child with a "colored" woman. Remember that this is 1957.  Ames feels a great deal of anxiety for his wife and child, whom he cannot live to care for in the years to come, or provide for from his very small savings.  Jack Boughton, named John Ames Boughton by his Presbyterian minister father, AAmes life long friend, is rejected by the family of his common law wife and loses her and his child, because he is white. Love is creative and also destructive in Gilead, as in life.

Ames and Jack talk  about predestination in one chapter. Jack is afraid that he may be cursed, depraved, and predestined to a life of suffering here and hereafter. He is someone who has made a number of bad choices in life and caused a lot of harm to himself and others. At one point Ames says that he is unable to forgive Jack for what he has done. He does acknowledge that God may forgive him. Ames answer to Jack's question about predestination amounts to "I don't know." Eventually the reader is let in on the secret, which runs through several chapters, of what terrible thing Jack has done. It turns out to be rather mundane, as Ames says all sin is, if horribly consequential.

A number of clergymen called in to the Diane Rhem show during the discussion about Gilead. All of them said that it was an accurate description of the life of a minister. (I don't think they were talking about Ames' rather wacky grandfather.) Their response to the book was the main impetus for my downloading and reading it. It is not a fast paced, action packed thriller but I couldn't put it down.


  1. "Gilead is the first book I have read on my new Kindle."

    So much for those librarians.

  2. I'm not used to actually paying for books. This was a bit of an experiment.


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