Friday, September 10, 2010

Marilynne Robinson's "Gilead"

In the Bible, Gilead is the region between the Jordan River and the Arabian plateau, with Bashan on the north and Moab and Ammon on the south. Today it would be part of the country of Jordan. It is sometimes referred to as a mountain, a hilly area, or simply “the land of Gilead.” The literal translation is “rocky region.” It is the area where Laban found Jacob after Jacob had fled with Rachel, Leah and their children.

For Marilynne Robinson, Gilead is a kind of rocky region as well, but less a physical geography and more a rocky region of souls and relationships, and especially the relationships between fathers and sons.

The novel, first published in 2004 (and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction), is a story literally “told” in first person narrative by John Ames, 77, a Congregationalist minister, who in his old age married a much younger wife and fathered a son. Ames is now dying, and he is writing about his family so that his son will have a history and memories of his recent ancestors.

The story that Ames writes becomes a way for the minister himself to make sense of his family history, and to understand the tensions and stresses that dominated the relationships between his own grandfather, an abolitionist in Kansas who wore guns while preaching and likely used them when he wasn’t, and his father, who chose to sit out the Civil War as a Quaker. Their relationship in turn frames the relationship Ames had with his father. But the chain will be broken with Ames and his own son, because of the differences in their ages (70 years) and Ames’ impending death.

What serves as a surrogate father-son relationship, though, is what Ames has with his namesake, John Broughton Ames, the son of his closest friend and the family’s black sheep. When John Broughton Ames returns, Robinson uses the tension to at first suggest a possible relationship between him and Ames’ loved and loving wife. Instead, the story will move in a different, and surprising, direction altogether.

Many themes and historical events are played through the stunningly beautiful prose – violence and its rejection, the abolition movement and the Civil War, what it means to be a conscientious objector, the calls to the ministry, and the very beginning of the civil rights era. But it is the sense of love and uneasiness between fathers and sons that strikes the main chords in Gilead, and Robinson plays the chords with precision and artistry.


My post “Marilynne Robinson’s Rocky Places" for Christian Manifesto.

Marilynne Robinson’s interview with the Paris Review.


H. Gillham said...

It's been so long since I read this book, but I remember liking it, but not loving it.

In some ways, I thought she tried too hard to set up the conflicts, especially with the historical, thus resonating a little artificial with me -- but I did love the title... as you so aptly noted its significance.

I had a love/hate relationship with the narrator -- and she writes some wonderful prose.


L.L. Barkat said...

This was one of those books I wanted to read but had to force myself to read. At least for about the first half.

Funny, because I like literary prose.

In the end, I was glad I read it. And the historical stuff you cite was part of the fascination.