“I’m writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you’ve done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle. You may not remember me very well at all, and it may seem to you to be no great thing to have been the good child of an old man in a shabby little town you will no doubt leave behind. If only I had the words to tell you.”
When I read Marilynne Robinson’s 2005 Pulitzer-winning novel Gilead, it instantly became one of my favorite books of all time. As a matter of fact, this (and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, actually) is the book that inspired me to collect and read all of the Pulitzers in the first place.
The main character and narrator, John Ames, is a 76-year-old preacher who has lived almost all of his life in the secluded country town of Gilead, Iowa. The majority of the novel is written in the form of a letter that he is writing to his almost seven-year-old son, the product of his second marriage. It is a summing-up, an apologia, a consideration of his life.
Ames writes of his father and grandfather, estranged over his grandfather’s departure for Kansas to march for abolition and his father’s lifelong pacifism. The tension between them, their love for each other and their inability to bridge the chasm of their beliefs is a constant source of rumination for John Ames.
Fathers and sons.
The reason for the letter is Ames’s failing health. He wants to leave an account of himself for this son who will never really know him. His greatest regret is that he hasn’t much to leave them, in worldly terms. In the course of the narrative, John Ames records himself, inside and out, in a meditative style.
Robinson, however, takes the story away from being simply the reminiscences of one man and moves it into the realm of a meditation on fathers and children, particularly sons, on faith, and on the imperfection of man.
And that was the thing that impressed me most about this novel. Yes, the story is compelling and moving; yes, Robinson’s writing is absolutely perfect; yes, the characters are well-developed and engaging. All of that make Gilead a great book.
But it is Robinson’s ability to transform her voice into that of a 76 year old man and do so in such an effective, meaningful, and, most impressively, natural way that really grabbed me. Robinson, a middle-aged woman at the time of this writing, could very well be mistaken for a seasoned old man in his twilight years, pondering the events of his life and examining it as a whole.
And I think the reason she is able to do this so naturally is that she avoids the question of “What is it to be a man?” all together and instead focuses her attention on “What is it to be human?”.
I hated to see Gilead end, but it left me in a good place—warm, safe, and fulfilled. I can’t decide if this is a simple book or a complex book, but I can tell you that it is a significant book.