The Reverend John Ames has lived in the small town of Gilead in Iowa nearly all his life. His father was a preacher and both grandfathers. Born in 1880 It’s now 1956 and he’s an elderly man knowing he doesn’t have long to live. So he begins to write a letter to his seven year old son ‘to tell you things I would have told you if you had grown up with me, things I believe it becomes me as a father to teach you.’

In a voice that is calm and authoritative the Reverend Ames tells his son about his life and beliefs about his friends and family and perhaps most beautiful of all, he describes their present life, the everyday happenings in their little family of three.

This is a book about fathers and sons really. As he writes to his future grown up son, he tells him about the relationship he had with his own father and about the relationship that he had with his father. His grandfather, a staunch abolitionist, moved the family to Kansas in the 1830’s ‘to help Free Soilers establish the right to vote’ while his father, a pacifist, is greatly disturbed by his fathers’ willingness to fight and hold a gun for his beliefs. There’s a lovely passage where our current John Ames recalls a trip he took with his father in 1892, when he was 12 years old. They go back to Kansas to try and find the grave of his grandfather, travelling by train and wagon but mostly on foot. The memories of the people they meet, the food they’re given – mostly cornmeal mush or navy beans, and there camaraderie was my favourite part of the book.

Then there’s his brother Edward who 10 years older than him, leaves home for Europe, discovers Feuerbach and comes back an atheist. But our John Ames is such a wise soul that despite the upset this book causes between father and son and it being ‘forbidden’ reading he reads it anyway under the covers and finds it ‘marvellous on the subject of joy’! Which makes me think I should read ‘The Essence of Christianity’.

And there’s John Ames Boughton, Jack, his namesake and godson who reappears like the prodigal son. He’s been away for so long, our John Ames can hardly remember him but now he keeps turning up, and is troubling. He befriends and spends too much time with his wife and son, who adores him. What’s his story? Where has he been and What’s his game?

He describes the loneliness of being a young widow, he delights in the natural world and wonders about creation and existence. He makes toasted cheese sandwiches and scrambled eggs while his wife is lost in her library book ‘The Trail of the Lonesome Pine’, and he dances to a waltz he hears on the radio. The stories and memories that he chooses to record for his son, to give him a flavour of the man he is, are wise and honest as well as tender and touching. But the Reverend John Ames is a theologian and he’s kept every sermon (bar one) that he has ever preached., He quotes from them liberally and refers to them often and this did make me feel as fidgety as a child in church and stopped me from being completely absorbed. But having said that, I see this is the first in the Gilead series and it certainly hasn’t put me off reading the next three.

‘I’d never have believed I’d see a wife of mine doting on a child of mine. It still amazes me every time I think of it. 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.’

21 thoughts on “Gilead

  1. Jane, I have been saying I’ll read this book for years and your review makes me want to read it immediately. Maybe I should do just that! (Now ordered from the library ๐Ÿ˜Š )

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    1. It’s the tone of the book that is so special, it’s so reassuringly measured, and what a wonderful thing to do – to write a letter for the future describing the scenes around you, just as they are, nothing especially special. I hope you enjoy it!

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  2. Hi Jane — lovely review! I have very mixed feelings about Robinson’s fiction. I think she’s a marvelous writer, maybe one of the best who’s still around and producing work. At times, I’ve been moved by, and in awe of, her descriptive abilities but . . . I don’t find, for the most part, that I’m on her emotional wavelength. I personally prefer a more ironic self-awareness in my fiction rather than the spirituality that is one of the strengths of MR’s writing. I’m not passing a value judgment here, I’m simply noting that this kind of emotional mismatch between author and reader does occur, and reflects nothing on the author.
    My remarks are based on reading only two of Robinson’s many novels, so they probably aren’t worth much. My two were Housekeeping, which may have been Robinson’s debut novel and which I thoroughly, completely hated, although I did find it both interesting and the work of a very talented writer. My second MR novel was Lila, one of her John Ames series, which I read out of order. I still found the spirituality a little off-putting but on the whole the novel was incredibly moving and made me think I should re-evalluate my MR phobia. I have all the Ames’ novels lined up, beginning with Gilead and, who knows? May actually read them one day!

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  3. Interesting! I had never heard of MR until very recently and was given Gilead and now seem to see her all over the place! The spirituality was my problem, I don’t share the beliefs of JA and I did start to feel that they took over (but then I suppose they would), but his voice and the characters held my attention and make me think that I might prefer ‘Lila’ and ‘Jack’, as their back stories are just hinted at here. . .


  4. The critics have always loved MR and have drooled over her work (I don’t know where you’re located or if you’re a reader of the NYT, but its section has never given her a bad review!). I pretty much decided to never read Gilead after learning the main character was a minister, as I didn’t think it could possibly speak to me! (a little unfair of me, but . . .) I finally decided to read Housekeeping, which isn’t in the Gilead and really didn’t like it (this was very much a minority opinion, however, so don’t let me put you off the novel). Then, for some bizarre reason, I read Lila despite having avoided the other Gilead books and thought — “I see what all the fuss is about!” At that point, I decided MR is just too significent a writer to ignore and that I needed to read her main novels with an open mind.
    On a slightly different note: Barack Obama adores Robinson’s work, which may help explain her prevalent in the literary news. If you’re into youtube you can probably watch his interview of her, which received a lot of attention.

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  5. It’s so interesting to see your reflections on this book, alongside the other comments above. I’ve tried to read it a couple of times, but on each occasion the style and narrative voice put me off somewhat. Nevertheless, I’m glad you’re going to continue with the series, despite the sermons, as I’m interested to see where it goes.

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  6. I love this book SO much, and for my money Robinson is the finest writer writing today (that I’ve read). It is rare to find someone writing about Christian faith, let alone so well – so, as a Christian, I very much appreciated it. But it might help you to know that there is a lot less Bible in the other books ๐Ÿ™‚ They can be read in any order, and you might get the most out of Jack, the most recent one.

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    1. I’m certainly intrigued by the back story! It is unusual to have a work of fiction so firmly set in the Christian faith without getting cultish or judgemental – I loved his measured tone, it reminded me of Atticus Finch (or may be just Gregory Peck!)


    1. I don’t know what the reasoning is behind calling the town Gilead, it didn’t bare anything in common with The Handmaid’s Tale thank goodness, I know it’s a town in the Bible but that’s all. . .

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