Marilynne Robinson's 'Gilead' mines epic emotion out of quiet drudgery

a devil's bookshelf

5/5 Blue Devils 

Books are hidden pathways. Like Russian nesting dolls, several books interconnect — oftentimes unexpectedly. Lily King’s “Writers & Lovers” is a perfect example. In one scene, the protagonist Casey Peabody (a writer) shares her favorite authors and books with another character: two are Shirley Hazzard’s “The Evening of the Holiday” and Marilynne Robinson’s “Housekeeping.” Sure, I understood that this was a fictional list of book recommendations, but perhaps this was also an encoded message from King herself. I took her advice, purchasing a copy of both, and to this day I highly recommend these two classic choices. 

After reading Robinson’s “Housekeeping,” a Pulitzer Prize finalist, I became fascinated by her ability to make a very simple storyline both vivid and vulnerable. It was one of my favorite books of 2020. Left interested and invested in Robinson’s writing, I decided to pick up a copy of “Gilead,” her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, originally published in 2004. This is the first book in a series of four novels, all set in the same fictional town of Gilead, Iowa – a quiet place where not much happens, but the perfect place for Robinson’s attentive, intricately detailed and meditative reflections. I usually don’t think categories or generalizations of books serve a purpose in reviews, but this may be one of my all time favorites. In it, she explores the questions: what do you include in a diary about your life? What gets passed onto future generations? What should be hidden and what can be shared? 

The majority of Reverend John Ames’s adulthood, prior to the start of the novel, is filled with significant loneliness and tragedy. As the novel’s narrator, he tells us that he has never left Gilead, even after his father, mother and brother Edward did many years ago. After losing his wife in a devastating childbirth, and his newborn daughter a while later, he is left unmarried and childless for many years. At this time of these losses, nothing fulfilled him beyond his commitment to his church. However, in a turn of events, Ames’s childhood best friend Boughton had a child and named him after Ames. Young Boughton became like John Ames’s own son and he became his second father. Throughout the novel, this relationship is taxing and exhausting for Ames, as the boy grows up to be rambunctious, disrespectful and simply mean. However, Ames never questions his appreciation for his existence. Before Ames creates his own family, Boughton provides him with a second, youthful version of himself — a gift. 

When the book begins, Ames has his own family, but his health is deteriorating. Approaching eighty, he is often exhausted, and his bones are growing weak. However, he won't let this be a barrier to being a dedicated father. He has always been a leader of his church, but now he must also be a mentor for his seven-year-old son. The style of the novel mirrors his intent: it is a letter entirely addressed to his son as “you.” In it, he investigates his own identity and experiences. When he can no longer spend time by his son’s side, these honest words will actively teach and guide him. In this way, this diary becomes like a bible of fatherhood for Ames, sacred in its own meditation on life. This style makes the novel deeply personal. When reading, I often felt as though I was part of a conversation not meant for me. I don’t regret my intrusion, however, and plan to reread it again. 

As Ames gains a newfound hope through his family, he must navigate between a life that will soon disappear, and two that are just beginning. He reconciles with his decline and limitations while watching his son and his young wife, Lila, experience their own seemingly endless opportunities. Lila encourages him to look back at old sermons tucked away upstairs in their home, deeply aware of the time constraints on their life together. However, Ames encourages her to understand that he is not outrunning a clock. Although he wishes for more time with his family, he is never envious of their position. Instead, he uses his wisdom from a lifetime of preaching to carefully dissect his own memories, extracting the lessons he wants his son to learn. 

Robinson’s narrative through the character of Ames is exploratory and challenges a typical plot structure. He writes in an awe-inspiring stream of consciousness, and I often would finish a paragraph and reread it, finding a new gem each time. Robinson does not use any chapters, but often makes use of significant white space on the page. Visually, the effect of this negative space is like a breath for the reader. She allows us to become momentarily overwhelmed with sensory details, but then encourages us to pause, sparking our own curiosity and reflections. The book itself is not a chaotic adventure, whodunnit chase, passionate romance or hilarious comedy. In a world of constant stimulation, we expect books to be or do something elaborate. Sometimes, though, the most elaborate explorations are those that force us to do nothing at all. 

Throughout the novel, Ames negotiates his feelings through the language of the heart. This organ is the root of his sickness, and on days when he feels tired, it is heavy. He shares that it aches and throbs with occasional grief, but it also makes him feel an inexplicable love for the world. Observing, listening and experiencing the seemingly inconsequential miracles of life allow for his heart to temportaily outcompete its failures. Sensations like the morning light, his son emerging from the cold with rosy pink cheeks and fingers and his wife grasping his hand between hers, make him appreciate the momentary flashes of wonder that fill each day. By writing down his memories, Ames hopes that his son will resurrect them, letting them take on a new life after his ends.

In Gilead, Marilynne Robinson lets language wander. Her descriptions twist and turn about the page, and she provides readers with a reinvention of life’s simplicity, which undoubtedly deserves 5/5 Blue Devils. Inverting light and darkness, and life and death, Robinson shows that our ephemerality is not something we should compartmentalize. Shying away from our ultimate end, she suggests, inhibits us from understanding the power of the present. After finishing this novel, I had a hundred more questions than answers. Robinson puts readers to work, and I encourage you to join me in reading — and rereading this book.


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