- Lost and Found in Gilead, Iowa
The first time I taught Gilead, I thought it was the best thing I’d ever done in the classroom. I had feared that my students would object to the relative plotlessness of Marilynne Robinson’s meditative novel, a book written in the voice of a seventy-six-year-old Congregationalist minister recording reflections and memories for his seven-year-old son. Remarkably, no one did. On the contrary, they were captivated by the romantic sensibility that infuses Robinson’s work, and they responded readily to her invitation to pause. The book’s structure, short bursts of writing separated by blank space on the page, requires that the reader slow down, for the pleasures of Gilead consist in dwelling in the moment of apprehension as images give way to ideas. As the narrator, John Ames, watches two boys playing in a sprinkler, for instance, his thoughts drift to baptism, which leads to a meditation on grace, which prompts him to consider his unconditional love for his son. “I know you will be and I hope you are an excellent man,” Ames writes, “and I will love you absolutely if you are not.”1 It gets me every time.
It got them, too. When we read passages aloud, students wept openly. They spoke about moments of beauty in their own lives, arresting experiences of communion and transcendence. In Robinson’s writing my students noted echoes of Emerson and Thoreau, Whitman and Dickinson, those American romantics who saw the holy in the everyday. Reading the novel made many of them feel like experts, for their ability to link Robinson to her literary forbears helped them to realize how well they understood the literary history out of which Robinson’s engagement with nature and spirit had grown. The book also gave my students a personal, intimate window onto the past. As Ames thinks [End Page 215] back on his life in the small Iowa town of Gilead, he shares with his son the stories of his father and grandfather—two other John Ameses—and those tales take him deep into the troubled sediment of American history. Ames’s grandfather, a preacher wont to deliver sermons with a gun in his belt, was part of the Bloody Kansas conflict and a compatriot of John Brown’s. Because his pursuit of abolition superseded all other moral claims, Ames felt no qualms about the acts of violence he committed in the fight for racial justice. The next Ames, in contrast, would attend a Quaker service in protest when Ames Sr., preached, believing, as he said, that “peace is its own reward” (84) and that the violence his father abetted had “nothing to do with Jesus” (85). The two elder John Ameses are, as the cliché goes, larger than life, exemplars of unwavering adherence to the principles of justice and peace. But the commitments of the third Ames are more modest; his battles more personal.
Our John Ames, as I’ve come to call the narrator, is motivated more by compassion for individual sufferers than by principled devotion to wider causes. He has the gift, one might say, of smallness. Robbed of his first wife and child in his early manhood, our Ames spends much of his adult life alone, listening to baseball, watching the world and the people in it. Looking back, he remembers that fallow period as a “blessed time,” for “in all that deep darkness a miracle was preparing”: after years of solitude, Ames meets, falls in love with, and marries a young woman, Lila, who bears him a child at the end of his seventh decade (55). Writing his farewell to his son, Ames looks around and sees God’s grace in “the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday” and the “silent and invisible life” that surrounds us (20). The novel comprises observations made from a place of bounty; it is a record of grateful beholding.
It is rare, in my experience, to encounter such an unabashed embrace of Christianity in the pages of a critically acclaimed contemporary novel. Robinson’s sophisticated engagement with religious thought allowed for conversations I’d never had in...