Top 10 Books I Read in 2011: Gilead (#7)

Gilead.

#7: GILEAD, by Marilynne Robinson.

Continuing my annual tradition of ranking the best books I read this past year, I am writing a series of posts about these 10 great novels. You can find the 2011 list and previous lists here.

As I mentioned in my review of The Marriage Plot, 2011 was the year of discovering great new authors, most significantly, Marilynne Robinson. I feel like I was so behind the curve getting to her — a feeling that was compounded after we moved to Charlottesville. It seemed like every other literate person I met was raving about Robinson. Everyone had read her; everyone urged me to. I nodded and shrugged and told myself to get to her eventually. Well. I’m glad I didn’t wait.

Gilead was the first Robinson novel I read, and it stirred up many thoughts. On the surface, Gilead, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006, is about three generations of fathers and sons. The novel is written in the form of a long letter from an elderly and dying father, Congregationalist minister John Ames, to his very young son. The action, if you can call it that, takes place in Gilead, Iowa, a small town in the prairie. The language is slow and lyrical and weaves effortlessly through the corridors of Ames’ aging mind. In the hands of the gifted Robinson, Ames is a gentle and sensitive soul, a man tied to the earth and a man rising up to heaven.

Ames is a wise and meditative narrator. His life is not particularly exciting and he is not trying to make it seem so. He just wants to leave some parting thoughts with his young son, the product of his late marriage to a much younger woman from his congregation. He isn’t trying to stir anything up. But then his best friend’s son reappears and stirs things up for him. Jack Ames Boughton, who was named after Ames, is Gilead’s prodigal son and he comes home, to Ames’ chagrin. The introduction of Boughton and his relationship with Ames was a very interesting choice, in my opinion; I didn’t see it coming. The conflict of Boughton’s arrival and the weight of his dark secret introduces an interesting and compelling tension to the novel, which could have otherwise been simply quiet, dreamy, and soft.

The spirit of the book, which is similar to the other Robinson novel I’ve read, is heavily steeped in transcendentalism, but a transcendentalism that trusts God. Ames is not afraid of God and he is not afraid of what bearing God may bring to his ending life. At the end of Gilead, we find a man who is at peace at the end of his life. Despite the fact that things have not ended perfectly, that he is leaving his young son too soon, does not seem to matter much. In Gilead, Robinson leaves us with this simple and profound reminder: The earth is good and the heart is good and God is good and life, well, it is also good. There is not much more one can say in the end.

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