A Balm in Gilead

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I just finished a book that upon closing it, I felt like it finished me in a sense. A quiet meditative book that reached down and stirred the deep waters in me. It’s Marilynne Robinson’s 2005 Pulitzer prize winner Gilead, given to me by my friend Andrew Peterson.

gilead_sm.jpgGilead is the account of the Reverend John Ames’ life in rural, IA, as told by the character of John Ames himself. At 76, he knows his days are numbered and he sets out to write an account of his life for his 7 year old son – the blessing of his second marriage after losing his first wife and young daughter. He is aware that he won’t be around to teach his young son the values and truths he himself cherishes and has in some cases learned the hard way. He makes a provision for this by writing letters for his son to read when he’s older. But the letters are also a way of saying goodbye to a world, a town, a life that he has loved.

I was first of all amazed that a woman could author a book with such a convincing male voice! There’s never a moment that John Ames voice rings untrue. It’s also remarkable Marilynne Robinson captured the subtlest nuances of the father/son story. Furthermore, I’m not sure what her spirituality is, but she wrote convincingly of a very authentic and deeply rooted faith. I’m hard pressed to think of a more profoundly Christian book than Gilead, but in ways least expected. Mark Twain talks of a “religious man in the worst sense of the word”, and I would call this a religious book in the best sense of the word.

I knew I wanted to write about this book here in the rabbit room, but I couldn’t for the life of me think of what to write and I was afraid I’d fail the book. It’s difficult to pull little quotes from it that are brilliant, because any brilliant quote would end up being three pages long. Entire passages are stunningly beautiful, but all in a quiet and unassuming way. It took me a long time to read the book because I had to savor every page – there was no filler. It’s one of the books that I feel changed me in the reading of it, or at the very least made me more present to my own life. That’s probably the best that I could say about it.

Andrew and I were talking about the book a few weeks ago after I had finished it, and I talked about one of my favorite scenes where John Ames has a dream that his grandfather “stalked out of the trees in that furious way he had, scooped his hat full of water, and threw it, so a sheet of water came sailing toward us, billowing in the air like a veil, and fell down over us. Then he put his hat back on his head and stalked off into the trees again and left us standing there in that glistening river, amazed at ourselves and shining like the apostles. I mention this because it seems to me transformations just that abrupt do occur in this life, and they occur unsought and unawaited, and they beggar your hopes and your deserving….”

That’s the way I feel this book came to me, like an unexpected, unsought, transformational gift.


18 Comments

  1. Pete Peterson

    I’m reading this right now and am already rearranging my favorites list in my mind to receive it when I’m done.

    I read a passage a couple nights ago that just blew me away. I can’t remember the entire thing off the top of my head, I’ll have to quote it when I get home tonight, but the part that really hit me was something like:

    “In Eternity, I believe, this world is Troy. It is the great epic of the universe. It is the song they sing in the streets.”

    It really reminded me of Andrew’s Behold the Lamb album.

  2. Profile photo of Jason Gray

    Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    Oh yeah! I remember that passage now! That’s the problem with this book, it’s so consistently good that it’s hard to remember specific passages…

  3. Tom

    Why is the review no longer on the main home page? Oh well this book definitely sounds interesting so it’s going on my list for sure.

  4. Profile photo of Pete Peterson

    Pete Peterson

    @pete

    Here’s the passage I was thinking of in its entirety:

    “I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can’t believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.”

    -Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

    The book is filled with that kind of beauty, that’s just the one that has stuck in my mind lately.

  5. Profile photo of Jonathan Rogers

    Jonathan Rogers

    @jonathanrogers

    Gilead is my favorite novel. It was my favorite novel by far until I got hold of Wendell Berry’s novels (nod here to our mutual friend Andrew P), which have moved into a pretty close second. Gilead is surely the most thoroughly Christian novel I’ve read. I don’t just mean that its language and imagery are strongly influenced by biblical language and imagery, but that the narrative is thoroughly shaped by a Christian vision of sin and grace. Sin abounds, grace super-abounds. I’m like Jason. I don’t know what to say about this book that wouldn’t be a diminishment of the thing itself.

    After Robinson won the Pulitzer, her collection of essays, The Death of Adam, was reprinted. That, too, is an astonishing book. The depth and breadth of her thought, always informed by a Christian worldview, is dazzling and energizing, even when one doesn’t buy all of her conclusions. She is an original thinker, and she won’t be categorized. She is a great admirer of Calvin and the Puritans (whether or not she would willingly be labeled a Calvinist I don’t know), but her understanding of Puritan and Calvinistic thought leads her to a politics that is left of center…She argues that when it comes to “social issues”–especially caring for the poor–the American Puritans had it all over modern-day liberals. At the same time, she points out the inconsistency of conservative Christians’ rejecting biological Darwinism while aligning themselves with a politics that amounts in many ways to social Darwinism. Anyway, The Death of Adam is an exceedingly important book. It probably deserves its own review in the Rabbit Room.

  6. Allison

    I read Gilead for the first time a few months ago, not long after the birth of our son. It was quite a poignant experience, nursing and feeling his newborn warmth as I read and thinking about what I would want our child to know about if I couldn’t be there when he grew up…Robinson’s words are just so hauntingly beautiful. All my favorite quotes take up pages and pages…I would try to read favorite passages aloud to my husband and I couldn’t figure out where to stop! Everyone should read this! As others have said, It is a novel that breathes the Gospel in every page. Thanks for the review.

  7. Giorey

    I haven’t read Gilead but last year I read Marilynne’s other novel Housekeeping. No other book stayed with me for so long after reading it. I felt like I’d been crushed by the weight of its magnificent beauty and was unsure whether I wanted to recover.

  8. Profile photo of Andrew Peterson

    Andrew Peterson

    @andrew

    Giorey,

    I’m so glad to hear someone mention Housekeeping. I’ve picked it up several times at the bookstore but always put it back, afraid that it’ll pale in comparison to Gilead and I’ll be disappointed.

    Looks like my fears are unfounded.

    AP

  9. Jonathan

    I just finished reading Gilead after seeing the recommendation on this site. Having grown up in a small town and having a vocation in ministry myself, this book struck me on many levels. There is a purity and simplicity in John Ames life and this book certainly challenged me to see the beauty in living and reflecting on our own lives.

  10. Taran

    I too have just finished reading this work based solely on Jason’s review. Thank you for including reviews of works that are important to each of you. As Jonathan mentioned above, the key theme for me in this novel is the overpowering presence of God’s grace that pervades each of our lives.

    John Ames merely takes the time to notice it.

  11. Lynn sharp

    Thank you for reminding me about this book. I read it a while ago and you have inspired me to read it again.

  12. The Rabbit Room

    […] Not just one of my favorite books of the year, but of my life. Thanks to Jonathan Rogers for the hearty recommendation over a cheeseburger at lunch.  For a fuller discussion, read the Rabbit Room review here. […]

  13. The Rabbit Room

    […] here, along with other books that we think you’ll love.  I just found a few copies of Gilead, Mere Christianity, and Peace Like a River, all books that come highly recommended by the Rabbit […]

  14. Jenni

    You are right – it is hard to do this book justice, but you wrote a great review. Gilead is one of my top 10 favorite books ~ so full of light.

  15. becky

    I read this book based on the review here, and I think it is as close to perfection as a novel can be. So beautiful, simple, and profound. I have been recommending it to everyone I know. I especially love when he breaks into a train of thought to talk about his son. His love for the boy is so precious and moving, and written so well.

  16. becky

    Has anyone read HOME yet? I have read a couple of reviews. One that even said it was better than GILEAD, which I find hard to believe.

  17. Jana

    I recently read Gilead for the first time — and then right away, for the second. (It’s even better the second time.)

    I am in a place right now where there’s a lot of waiting and uncertainty — but what *is* known is that in the not too distant future, my parents will be leaving to see Jesus. I have been finding solace in creative works (too cold a word) that point toward hope. Gilead is one of them. The music of AP is another, and the reason I found this site. (And this site is one of the reasons I picked up Gilead.) So I’m here looking for more of the same, and I just wanted to say “thank you” to the folks who put this together. It’s serving for far more than conversation and book sales, I believe.

    And Gilead is now my favorite (non-Scripture) book. It edged out Till We Have Faces.

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