Author Marilynne Robinson’s first novel, Housekeeping, was published in 1980. More than two decades later, after many years of teaching at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Robinson published a new novel, Gilead, in 2004. The praise for this unique, memoir-style novel was nearly universal. Gilead won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, as well as the National Book Critics Circle Award. Robinson, who earned her doctorate in English from The University of Washington in 1977, has since also been awarded the 2012 National Humanities Medal and the 2016 Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction, both lifetime achievement awards for her contributions to literature.
Gilead is perhaps easiest to describe as the fictional autobiography of the Reverend John Ames, a pastor in his seventies living in 1950s rural Iowa. Realistic about his age and a heart condition, Ames decided to create an account of his life and his family history for his seven-year-old son to preserve his memory of him, knowing that it isn’t likely he’ll live to see his boy grow into a man. Ames’ beloved son is the fruit of an unexpected late-in-life union with Lila, an enigmatic figure whose story is explored in greater detail in another one of Robinson’s books. Robinson describes their tentative courtship with great tenderness – it’s two characters who are less falling in love than falling into place, when perhaps neither expected any longer to find a partner with whom to share their lives.
But the story of Gilead is not just focused on the present-day. Using a literary technique that reads much like John Ames’ personal journal, Robinson weaves a family history that stretches back throughout decades of history and explores complicated thoughts including pacifism, predestination, and the abolitionist movement. Despite these profound musings, Ames does not miss the importance of the everyday. Little moments of holiness are highlighted throughout the book, elevating simple acts such as eating, drinking, and working. Robinson also does not shy away from describing the often-complicated relationships that occur in families over the years; father-son dynamics are particularly emphasized, especially as the reader always remembers that these words are being penned to a son who may not remember much about his father.
As noted above, Robinson has been widely acclaimed for her rich portrayal of characters ensconced in a slow-placed, rural environment. But more uniquely, Robinson shows a real appreciation for earnest, well-meaning characters who, despite their circumstances, trust in a higher goodness and morality. At the same time, many of these characters such as John Ames and his best friend, Boughton, are deeply intellectual and well-educated, discussing philosophy, literature, and current events in great detail. Other characters, such as Lila, were clearly never given the opportunity to enjoy formal education. Nonetheless, Robinson treats each character with respect.
There is a real town of Gilead in Adair County, Iowa. Thanks to her long tenure at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, it’s possible that Robinson based the sleepy town that appears in her novel on the real place. However, an internet search shows that the real Gilead is now a ghost town. Perhaps it is appropriate that the characters created by Robinson live on in their stead.
What are the lessons of Gilead? The novel is full of thought-provoking ideas that a reader could ponder, but after my own reading I was most struck by a reminder that you never really know where another person is coming from, and I felt a profound compassion towards my fellow man that I think is the mark of a truly great work. One of the reasons we value fiction is for the insight it provides into another’s experience, another way of thinking, another way of being. Gilead is a novel that provides that insight with great impact.
Maybe one last lesson we can take away is that it’s never too late to create something of lasting value. As readers, we are all certainly fortunate that Robinson didn’t decide to stop after she published her first novel even though it took more than twenty years to publish another one. Indeed, after the success of Gilead, Robinson explored its vibrant world and memorable characters again in the novels Homecoming and Lila as well.