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Need Spiritual Sustenance? Read the Novel, Gilead, to See the Power of Faith

Pulitzer Prize Winner for Fiction in 2005

Reading the Pulitzer Prize Winners for Fiction Since 2000

Last year, I made it one of my projects to begin reading all the Pulitzer Prize-winning novels since 2000. On one of my bookstore jaunts, I scored a $6.00 copy of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, a book that’s been on my reading list for years. Since Gilead was the 2005 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction — and since I’m not reading them in any particular order, I bought the book knowing that it would help me achieve my goal.

I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to find this deep and lovely, soulful and wise, book, one that will remain on my shelves and be pulled down over and over for a reminder of how authentic faith feels and acts. James Wood, a critic for the New York Times, described Gilead as “fiercely calm,” “a beautiful work — demanding, grave and lucid,” and I would wholeheartedly agree.

I Am Not Adequate to the Task:

This book is so beautiful that my words can’t adequately describe it because I know I can’t capture the beauty and depth of it. Instead, I’ll quote the words of the main character of the novel, John Ames, a lifelong pastor who laments that the words he puts out from the pulpit are never good enough. (Writers and pastors are alike in that they both try to convey deep meaning with words:)

‘So often I have known, right there in the pupit, even as I read the words, how far short they fall of any hope I had for them. And they were the major work of my life, from a certain point of view. I have to wonder how I have lived with that.”

The Plot

It is 1956 in the small town of Gilead, Iowa.

John Ames, a seventy-seven-year-old minister nearing his death is writing a letter to his very young son, the child of a surprising marriage of a 67-year-old pastor to a much younger woman who had appeared at his church. Ames is trying to explain to his son all the things he won’t be around to talk about as his son grows up.

The letter is a reflection back on his ancestry, starting with his fervent abolitionist, pistol-packing-preacher grandfather who lost an eye in the Civil War and who had no compunction about stealing other people’s stuff if he could give it away to a good cause.

Marilynne Robinson’s ability to put the power of description into her character’s writing is just one of the many techniques that makes the book so memorable. John Ames describes his fiery grandfather’s photo like this:

“It shows a wild-haired, one-eyed, scrawny old fellow with a crooked beard, like a paintbrush left to dry with lacquer in it, staring down the camera as if it had accused him of something terrible very suddenly, and he is thinking how to reply and keeping the question at bay with the sheer force of that stare.”

Ames reflects on how the geography of the Kansas-Iowa border was affected by the fight between the Free-Soilers and the opposing groups intent on upholding the Fugitive Slave Law. The conflict bled onto John’s father, who hated his father’s willingness to fight for a cause and instead become an ardent pacifist, a philosophy that caused irreconcilable differences between John Ames’ grandfather and his son.

John Ames writes of his family and tries to explain to his son about the family dynamics of his own shattered family. His father, also a minister, was angry when John’s brother, Edward, declared he was an unbeliever.

Men of Faith and Men of Disbelief

John Ames is the third generation of preachers. One would wonder whether faith is passed down genetically or possibly environmentally from constant exposure to the profession and experience with its duties.

But John’s brother, Edward, is proof that family religious practice doesn’t guarantee belief. John Ames oldest friend, Robert Boughton, is a Presbyterian pastor, another man like John who has devoted his life to the Lord and His people. Boughton’s family has been connected with the Ames’ family since the two men were children, both families living in the same small town, leading parallel lives.

Ames’ and Boughton’s lives are so parallel that Boughton, too, has a son who does not appear to be a Godly man. Jack Boughton, in fact, becomes the most important character of the book, a much-beloved man who’s done bad things and who Ames struggles to forgive.

Conflict, Characters, Covetous, and Parallel Lives that Curve

John Ames and Robert Boughton have parallel lives that curve away from each other in one regard.

Boughton has a wife and a big family.

John Ames does not. His first wife, Louisa, died after giving birth to their daughter. The baby died shortly after its mother. Ames lost his entire family while he was away on church business, leaving Boughton to baptize the baby — with a different name than Ames had intended — and to handle the details of the deaths of his best friend’s family.

The subtle, persuasive sadness that Ames felt because of this tragedy is embedded in the pages of his letter to his son. It’s a grief made worse because — in trying to help John Ames — his best friend, Boughton, had named his first-born son John Ames Boughton, surprising Ames by asking him to baptize the boy at a church service. Stunned, Ames baptized the child but didn’t feel the right connection and sense of sanctity that he usually felt during baptism because he was so shocked that Boughton was “giving” him his son. He was also a little resentful and felt guilty for feeling that way.

That knowledge sets up the major conflict. Jack is coming home after years and years of being away, living a questionable life, and John Ames writes about how to overcome his anger.

It isn’t until much later in the book that the reader finds out what Jack has done to so upset the gentle, loving, John Ames, who had been like a second father to him.

Not Doing Justice to the Depth of Emotion

The letter that the dying John Ames writes to his son tells the story of a man who loves the Lord, a man struggling with the loneliness and grief of losing his wife and baby girl. It speaks of the anger toward a young man he loves but who has not lived a righteous life. It speaks of history and humor. Friendship and fatherhood. Meanness and miracles.

Woods, in his New York Times critique, says,

“Robinson’s words have a spiritual force that’s very rare in contemporary fiction.”

“Amen!” I want to shout, but there’s so much more. Not only were Robinson’s words rare, but they were also lush and beautiful, making me stop and re-read, lingering over the language that illustrated the intangible characteristics of faith.

So Much Beauty

Talking about the plot and the characters is simply not enough to describe the beauty of the book. It is a story of how a Godly man worked through the struggles of life; of how anger and loss, loneliness, compassion, friendship, love, and hope are intertwined; of how beauty abounds in daily living.

John Ames’ life illustrates his devotion to God by his continual emphasis on prayer. Baptism is a sacred act, a deep and thrilling cleansing and reception of God, not an ordinary ritual. Communion is, literally, spiritual sustenance from a Father.

Marilynne Robinson gives John Ames powers of observation and delight. He sees the beauty of laughter in. the young men who work at the local garage.

“…always so black with grease and strong with gasoline I don’t know why they don’t catch fire themselves. They were passing remarks back and forth the way they do and laughing that wicked way they have. And it seemed beautiful to me. It is an amazing thing to watch people laugh, the way it sort of takes them over.”

Ames delights in watching people and recognizing the joyful things in life: He notes,

“The twinkling of an eye. That is the most wonderful expression. I’ve thought from time to time it was the best thing in life, that little incadescence you see in people when the charm of a thing strikes them, or the humor of it it. ‘The light of the eyes rejoiceth the heart.’ That’s a fact.”

One passage burned itself into my soul. John Ames writes to his son,

“It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance — for a moment or a year or the span of a life.”

Gargantuan Task

It must have been a gargantuan task for Marilynne Robinson to create a work that has only one speaker in the entire book, an aging old preacher facing his own demise. She must have lain awake nights thinking about how to infuse the pages with enough history and characters and conflict to keep the readers turning the page. She probably worried about the pacing of a book where there was little action and only remembered events.

Gilead is a tribute to the skill of a writer who created a literary work that is readable, relatable, and wondrous all at the same time. I don’t know how people who don’t have faith feel when reading the book, but I do know this:

Believers in God will feel him on the pages, in the descriptions of the sunrise in a quiet church, the peace found on solitary night walks, the depth of devotion to the wife he never thought he’d have.

Blessings. Healing. Hope.

Read this novel if you haven’t already.

There is balm in Gilead, indeed.


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