Gilead – Marilynne Robinson

I’ve been wanting to read Marilynne Robinson for years, but was terrified. I knew that she was smart and loved and revered. I also knew that her writing is considered top-notch. I finally got the guts to tackle one despite my fears – Gilead.

After receiving bad news from his doctor, John Ames decided to start keeping a journal for his son. John is in his 70s and his son is about 6, and John is disappointed that he won’t be able to see him grow up. There’s so much that John wants to share with him, so he writes it in this notebook.

Some of the things he writes because his son is way too young to remember or appreciate them, like the memories that John’s own father passed to him about the Civil War. Other things that John shares are striking – just describing his son’s current favorite shirt, or the sounds of him playing catch in the yard. The little things that, as parents, will be all too easy to forget with the hustle of life.

John’s family has been spiritual leaders in the town of Gilead, Iowa for generations. Much of his journal reflects on this, such as the worry and responsibility he feels about knowing the intimate details of others’ lives, and the bewilderment of how all this adds up in the big picture. He grapples with what to do with the boxes of sermons in the attic – will they be burned? Will his much younger wife, Lila, save them? Are they even worth saving? Are his own memories and life’s work worth a place in this world?

In this journal, John grapples with his faith. One recurring theme is his frustration with the son of his best friend who was named in his honor: John Ames Boughton, who is called Jack. Jack was a trouble maker as a youth and John was never able to “warm to him.” Now, Jack is back in town and is sidling up with Lila and his son. John thinks that Jack wants to take his place in his family once John dies, which worries John to no end. We watch John’s evolution of thought on Jack and how he reconciles it with his faith. We see that it’s possible to love everyone, despite their flaws and our differences. We see how forgiveness works.

This was another great reminder to not be intimidated by the “smart stuff.” While it was brilliant, it was still totally accessible and enjoyable for me, even knowing that I was probably not processing 95% of what the author was trying to say. This was a very quiet story, simply an old man trying to understand his life better, but it was so well written that I couldn’t look away from it. This was the first book in the Gilead series, a trilogy of stand alone books that explore the lives of the characters we meet in Gilead, and I’m looking forward to reading the others. And everything else that Robinson has written!

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