Read: Gilead, Marilynne Robinson.
To write about faith, grief, religion and forgiveness without becoming preachy is a minor miracle - but Marilynne Robinson seems to understand the nature of miracles very well. The miraculous isn’t something that exists outside ordinary life, but rather in the closely observed details of the everyday. In Gilead, Robinson illuminates the glorious inner world of an apparently ordinary man. A preacher in Iowa in the fifties? Not an obviously interesting subject, or at least one which would call out for a bitter, satirical or humorous approach from a lesser writer. Robinson, on the other hand, fills her novel with hope, grace, grief, fear and love - and above all, a sense of the well-mixed mystery and mundanity in one man’s life.
The premise of the novel is simple enough. An elderly preacher, married late in life to a younger woman, writes a long letter to his seven-year-old son when he learns that he is dying. This gives Robinson an extraordinary palette to deal with: John Ames’ love for his wife, his fear for the future, his acceptance of death, his reflections on his life, his relationship with faith and God and the Church (all quite different things), his notions of a “life’s work.” Instead of being pedantic, heavy-handed or obscure, Robinson manages to handle these things with a lightness and grace that is utterly convincing, making Ames seem real and his story inevitable.
Along with the writing (beautiful), the themes (moving) and the characterization (extraordinary), my favorite part of the novel was its sense of history. Much of the story is concerned with the main character’s relationship with his father, a passionate pacifist, and his grandfather, a fiery abolitionist. The book created a profound sense of interconnectedness. It was clear that this old man living in a comfortable small town in the fifties, this old man had seen wars and death and grief, and remembered the Depression, and was scarred by the aftermath of the Civil War on his family. It’s too easy to arbitrarily divide up American history into easy-to-digest chunks. “Oh, he’s Depression-era,” we say, or “Well, the fifties were all about security.” But Robinson makes it impossible to see pieces of history in isolation. The man dying in his air-conditioned room is the same one who had to decide what it meant to preach while men and women starved, or died of influenza, or were shipped overseas. At least for me, this realization was profound; I’ve always had a good academic sense of history, but this got into my blood or brain or wherever the story virus lives, and I’ll never forget this lesson.
It took her twenty-four years to write this book. I hope it doesn’t take her another twenty-four years to write the next one.