Iowa Alumni Magazine | February 2005 | Reviews

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

By Megan Levad
This long-awaited novel paints an unforgettable portrait of faith and devotion.


Composed as a long letter-turned-journal, Gilead is a gift that an ailing reverend begins writing for his young son in 1956, so that the boy might come to know his father when he’s gone. It is also Marilynne Robinson’s second novel in almost a quarter century.

Although her lyrical and well-loved first novel, Housekeeping, won many ardent admirers after its 1980 publication, Robinson was in no hurry to follow it up. Instead, she spent her time writing essays and scholarly work and teaching at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Fans of Housekeeping and its exploration of destiny, solitude, and love will probably agree that her second work of compelling fiction was worth the wait.

Reverend John Ames, the voice of Gilead, is a preacher—just like his father and grandfather before him. His life in a town called Gilead, Iowa, is considerably settled compared to that of his abolitionist grandfather, whose commitment to ending slavery inspired his congregation but drove a wedge between him and his son.

Robinson illustrates the early days of Iowa’s role in the abolition movement in fine detail, using humor to enliven the stoic frontier heroes who persevered to keep it a free state. With a proud and gentle voice, John describes those valiant days and their quiet heroics, in contrast with his grandfather’s bloody shirts, sweaty horses, and
smoking rifles.

Gilead is a vivid recollection of John’s life and loved ones, such as the first moment that his future, much-younger wife walks into church and sparks a rush of feelings in his heart. As the relationship grows, Robinson gives her narrator many opportunities for reflection and self-deprecation that showcase the bittersweet consequences of marrying and fathering so late in life. Indeed, Gilead is shot through with the slow sunset light of John’s end-of-life joys and regrets. Robinson creates deeply affecting passages on John’s sadness at leaving this world and a young family still in need of his protection, as well as genuine, poignant descriptions of John playing with his son.

John writes about the past with an insight and lightness that one would expect from an aging clergy member, yet Robinson smartly incorporates a plot point that compels him to live in his moments, rather than remain in a constant state of reflection. In the end, she makes the story bigger than just one well-lived life.

Gilead has surprising plot and character twists. John’s grown godson, the prodigal son of his best friend, brings home a secret so important to the book’s larger theme of redemption and grace that it would be a shame to spoil it for you. I will say that this storyline illustrates Robinson’s genius and allows her to create a work that is not only incredibly moving but presents the argument between faith and existentialism without pretension or condescension.

Because Gilead’s construction is that of a deeply personal letter, and because John’s voice is so warm and open and real, it’s hard not to think of him as the book’s author. It is to Robinson’s credit that she can so deftly work little-known Iowa history and some of the most beautiful writing available on the theology of mercy into a novel that reads like a humble memoir. This is Robinson’s greatest gift—her ability to humanize a philosophical novel and to meld her storylines so seamlessly that readers can understand not just with the head, but with the heart.