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Gilead

by Marilynne Robinson

This novel takes the form of a letter, written in 1956, by a very old man, the Reverend John Ames, to the dearly loved son of his advancing years. It is a last testament of wisdom learned, of love lost and found, and the relationship forged and tested between fathers and sons.

The Rev. John Ames was born into the 19th century, when the Midwest of the United States was being shorn of its forests. Its prairies, manured for millennia by game and bison, were being ploughed up for profit by greedy speculators and entrepreneurs. Small towns in those days were hot property. But nature had been outraged, and predictably took revenge: the prairies became the world's widest dustbowl and began to blow away in the hot summer winds, and turn into a sea of impassable mud in midwinter. The smart set went away, and only indigent communities were left, with nowhere to go and little to do. John Ames knew it all by heart, as intimately as knew his Bible and his hearth. He could have left: as a young man he had studied at university, but he was drawn back to his little town and his needy flock. His straitened circumstances were transformed when he married: life seemed unbelievably joyful, only to dim again when his young wife died giving birth to his first son, who lived only long enough to be christened; they were buried in the desolate churchyard.

It was years before John Ames married again, under strange circumstances, an accidental husband if ever there was one. But as he writes to the boy born of this late marriage, knowing that the letter must be laid away for many years until the boy becomes a man, who may have forgotten the face of his father, John Ames finds himself asking questions and finding at least a few answers. And, of course, he is finding himself, and remembering old friends and old jokes.

The bleak landscape had lent no comfort to the lonely years. When the dying held his hand and looked into his eyes and asked him what death would be like he used to say it was like going home. But then he would walk back up the road to his empty parsonage and listen to his radio in the dark. His neighbours loved him and brought him homemade pies and puddings, and introduced him to every unmarried female for miles around. He quite enjoyed that, but he never forgot for a single day for the rest of his life the young wife and tiny baby, taken so suddenly and terribly one awful night. The care of his congregation and his church and the preparation of his Sunday sermon filled his days; the seasons changed, and he sleepwalked through the years. When a strange young woman made her appearance at his services he became aware of her. Gradually she broke down his reserve and eventually proposed marriage to him, and to his great astonishment he was delighted, and accepted. But when their son was born he was very frightened, and as usual his anxiety went into his sermon. He preached about Hagar and Ishmael being sent into the wilderness and Abraham going off with Isaac to sacrifice him, as he believes. His point is that Abraham is in effect called upon by God to sacrifice both his sons. "Abraham's extreme old age is an important element in both stories, not only because he can hardly hope for more children, not only because the children of old age are unspeakably precious, but also...because any father, particularly an old father, must finally give his child up to the wilderness and trust to the providence of God". It is the narrative of all generations and is beautifully described in the old man's letter to his son.

Marilynne Robinson's novel is original in form and perception. It is a thoughtful book written by a gifted writer and consummate storyteller whose penetrating and inimitable intelligence illuminates and enlivens every page of the book.

Read our interview with Marilynne Robinson.

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