Friday, September 10, 2010
Marilynne Robinson's "Gilead"
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.