An old spiritual hymn says, "There is a balm in Gilead to soothe the sin-sick soul." Gilead, the mountainous region of the hymn, and Gilead, Iowa, might seem as removed as night and day. But in Marilynne Robinson's luminous novel, even this tiny plains town can be the site of grace and the goodness of God: "So often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turn radiant at once, that word 'good' so profoundly affirmed in my soul that I am amazed I should be allowed to witness such a thing."
So writes seventy-six-year-old John Ames, a Congregationalist minister and the father of a six-year-old son. As his health fails, Ames writes a long letter to his young son, meditating on his own history and that of his father and grandfather, both of whom were also preachers. Ames sets out to write his son's "begats," so that his son might come to know in some way the story of his father, who is likely to die before the two can talk as equals.
Creeping into his narrative, though, comes not only Ames's reflections on the faith of his fathers, but also his profound love for and wonder in things of this earth. Many of the descriptions of the beauty of seemingly mundane activities and scenes are almost startling in their loveliness: "there you were, you and your mother, blowing bubbles at the cat…. Some of the bubbles drifted up through the branches, even above the trees. You two were too intent on the cat to see the celestial consequences of your worldly endeavors. They were very lovely. Your mother is wearing her blue dress and you are wearing your red shirt and you were kneeling on the ground together with Soapy between and that effulgence of bubbles rising, and so much laughter. Ah, this life, this world." Ames's evident delight in the beauty of this world speaks to his recognition of holiness in the everyday: "It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance." In glowing prose, Robinson's novel illuminates these radiant moments.
Ames's narrative also turns to the future, to what will happen to his town, his ministry, and his family after his death. He harbors concerns that his congregation will decide to tear down his beloved church building after his death, that his memory will be forgotten, that his thousands of pages of sermons will remain buried in boxes forever. When his best friend's wayward son Jack (named after John Ames) returns to Gilead and befriends Ames's young wife and son, Ames simultaneously expresses hope and fear about what the future brings for them: "I might well be leaving her to a greater happiness than I have given her, even granting every difficulty." When Jack reveals a secret, and his true reasons for returning to his hometown, Ames must overcome his misgivings about Jack's past and find room in his heart for one more blessing, one more bestowal of grace.
GILEAD is a book of small beauties and large truths, the rare novel that is unafraid to talk about matters of faith in terms both profound and significant, without either trivializing or sentimentalizing their importance. Robinson's prose is luminous and brilliant, full of passages that beg to be savored, shared, and remembered for their wisdom and their acknowledgment of the presence of the divine.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 22, 2011