Summary and book reviews of Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Gilead

A Novel

By Marilynne Robinson

Gilead
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  • Hardcover: Nov 2004,
    256 pages.
    Paperback: Jan 2006,
    256 pages.

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Book Summary

In 1956, toward the end of Reverend John Ames's life, he begins a letter to his young son, an account of himself and his forebears. Ames is the son of an Iowan preacher and the grandson of a minister who, as a young man in Maine, saw a vision of Christ bound in chains and came west to Kansas to fight for abolition: He "preached men into the Civil War," then, at age fifty, became a chaplain in the Union Army, losing his right eye in battle. Reverend Ames writes to his son about the tension between his father--an ardent pacifist--and his grandfather, whose pistol and bloody shirts, concealed in an army blanket, may be relics from the fight between the abolitionists and those settlers who wanted to vote Kansas into the union as a slave state. And he tells a story of the sacred bonds between fathers and sons, which are tested in his tender and strained relationship with his namesake, John Ames Boughton, his best friend's wayward son.

This is also the tale of another remarkable vision--not a corporeal vision of God but the vision of life as a wondrously strange creation. It tells how wisdom was forged in Ames's soul during his solitary life, and how history lives through generations, pervasively present even when betrayed and forgotten.

Gilead is the long-hoped-for second novel by one of our finest writers, a hymn of praise and lamentation to the God-haunted existence that Reverend Ames loves passionately, and from which he will soon part.

I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I'm old, and you said, I don't think you're old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren't very old, as if that settled it. I told you you might have a very different life from mine, and from the life you've had with me and that would be a wonderful thing, there are many ways to live a good life. And you said, Mama already told me that. And then you said, Don't laugh! because you thought I was laughing at you. You reached up and put your fingers on my lips and gave me that look I never in my life saw on any other face besides your mother's. It's a kind of furious pride, very passionate and stern. I'm always a little surprised to find my eyebrows unsinged after I've suffered one of those looks. I will miss them.

It seems ridiculous to suppose the dead miss anything. If ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
Since the publication of Marilynne Robinson's widely praised 1981 debut, Housekeeping, readers have long anticipated a second novel from this extraordinary writer. Gilead at last fulfills that hope, combining a profound exploration of life's mysteries with magnificent storytelling.

Told through the eyes of a Midwestern minister nearing the end of his life, Gilead unfolds in the form of a letter. As Reverend Ames writes to his young son, we learn of the family's legacy, a heritage steeped in abolition, economic hardship, and conflicting views on religion and war as each generation comes of age. The 1950s find John Ames comparing his grandfather, a fiery Union Army chaplain, to his devoutly pacifist father ...
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  • award image

    National Book Critics Circle Award
    2004

  • award image

    Pulitzer Prize for Letters, Drama and Music
    2005

Reviews

BookBrowse

Fans of Robinson's debut Housekeeping have been waiting 23 years for her to publish a second novel. The result is worth the wait.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

Full Review Members Only (518 words).

Media Reviews
James Wood, The New York Times

Gilead is a beautiful work -- demanding, grave and lucid -- and is, if anything, more out of time than Robinson's book of essays, suffused as it is with a Protestant bareness that sometimes recalls George Herbert (who is alluded to several times, along with John Donne) and sometimes the American religious spirit that produced Congregationalism and 19th-century Transcendentalism and those bareback religious riders Emerson, Thoreau and Melville.

Publishers Weekly

Robinson's prose is beautiful, shimmering and precise; the revelations are subtle but never muted when they come, and the careful telling carries the breath of suspense....Many writers try to capture life's universals of strength, struggle, joy and forgiveness-but Robinson truly succeeds in what is destined to become her second classic.

Kirkus Reviews

Robinson returns with a second novel that, however quiet in tone and however delicate of step, will do no less than tell the story of America-and break your heart.....This long story of daily life in deep Middle America-addressed to an unknown and doubting future-is never in the slightest way parochial or small, but instead it evokes on the pulse the richest imaginable identifying truths of what America was. Robinson has composed, with its cascading perfections of symbols, a novel as big as a nation, as quiet as thought, and moving as prayer. Matchless and towering.

Donna Seaman, Booklist

Robinson's first book, Housekeeping (1981), remains an astonishment, leading to high expectations for her longed-for second novel, which is, joyfully, a work of profound beauty and wonder....Millennia of philosophical musings and a century of American history are refracted through the prism of Robinson's exquisite and uplifting novel as she illuminates the heart of a mystic, poet, and humanist.

People - Jeremy Jackson

Robinson's 1981 debut, Housekeeping, was a perfect novel if ever there was one, and her long-awaited second novel proves just as captivating . . . Robinson's prose is lovely and wonderfully precise . . . Gilead is a gentle journey that will be even better the second time you read it.

Newsday - Philip Connors

A major work.

The Charlotte Observer - Kathryn Schwille

A beautifully rendered story . . . full of penetrating intellect and artful prose . . . that captures the splendors and pitfalls of being alive . . . The world could use . . . more novels this wise and radiant.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch - Martin Northway

Compelling . . . Brilliant.

Wall Street Journal - Matt Murray

There is a lot of pleasure to be had in the novel's probing, thoughtful narrative voice.

Entertainment Weekly - Lisa Schwarzbaum

Magnificent . . . A psalm worthy of study, a sermon of the loveliest profundity . . . [A] literary miracle . . . 'A'.

Time Out New York

A Great American Novel.

The Atlantic Monthly - Mona Simpson

Robinson's long-awaited second novel is an almost otherwordly book-and reveals Robinson as a somewhat otherwordly figure herself . . . A work of enormous integrity . . . Original and strong . . . A beautiful book of ideas.

St. Petersburg Times - Ellen Emry Heltzel

The mature and thoughtful work of a superb and thoughtful storyteller.

Elle - Lisa Shea

An inspired work from a writer whose sensibility seems steeped in holy fire.

O, The Oprah Magazine

Quietly powerful [and] moving.

Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

Marilynne Robinson draws on all of these associations in her new novel, which -- let's say this right now -- is so serenely beautiful, and written in a prose so gravely measured and thoughtful, that one feels touched with grace just to read it. Gilead possesses the quiet ineluctable perfection of Flaubert's A Simple Heart as well as the moral and emotional complexity of Robert Frost's deepest poetry. There's nothing flashy in these pages, and yet one regularly pauses to reread sentences, sometimes for their beauty, sometimes for their truth Adulthood is a wonderful thing, and brief. You must be sure to enjoy it while it lasts.

Reader Reviews
Cloggie Downunder

Uplifting
Gilead is the second novel by American author Marilynne Robinson. It is 1956, in Gilead, Iowa, and John Ames, a seventy-six year-old preacher with heart failure, is writing a letter to his young son. After losing his first wife and daughter in ...   Read More

NikkiD

I love, love, love this book!
This is a book that was written to be savored! The language is nothing short of gorgeous. "Gilead" explores the relationships between fathers and sons from many angles, highlighting tenderness and pain in a way that seems heartbreakingly ...   Read More

bob

Interesting...Different...'Read-worthy'
Another one of those books that when I finished, all I could think was 'Interesting...Different.' While I was reading it I kept thinking "Why am I reading this?” I wanted to quit several times, but then I would come across passages like this one ...   Read More

Susan

The quiet book
This book is unusual in that it has a voice unlike anything I have read in contemporary fiction. The writing is exceptional. If not for anything else, this book should be read for the honesty of the writing. I am not surprised that this book would be...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Background Information:
The Biblical Gilead is a region near the Jordan River which is described as having plants with healing properties. According to some sources, the Hebrew origin of the word simply means 'rocky area.' - which begs the question whether it makes an ironic or symbolically accurate title for Robinson's novel?
"Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?" Jeremiah 8:22

More Information
An article from Publishers Weekly about Housekeeping
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