I purchased this book with the 13 or 14 others at the Boston Book Festival last year in a bag for $20 from one of the book sellers. And although the elusive ‘they’ say never to judge a book by its cover, I would not have read Gilead If I hadn’t. From the beautiful and simplistic close up of a fading front door to the title so steeped in folkloric and mythic tradition, I never once read the synopsis until I decided to read the book and there was no turning back.
The lack of religiosity impressed me considering the book’s protagonist is a Congregationalist minister. The religion that does seep in comes across more as universal kindness and understanding than tongues and bible thumping. The protagonist, his best friend, his father, his grandfather, and various other characters are all ministers and yet they are real people–they love, they kill (in the name of abolition), they run away from the world and they live normal lives.
The novel itself is interesting as it is one long letter written over a period of a few weeks from the protagonist John Ames, to his son. When his son reads the letter, at an unspecified date and time after Ames’ death, he will learn lessons his father could not teach him before he died and he will learn about his family history, the town they’ve lived in and the people closest to them. There were times when the narrative rambled, but who wouldn’t ramble if they were writing a 200+ page letter, it added to the exhaustion the reader assume Ames faces at the end of his lifetime.
I hesitate to say this is a coming of age novel, as I love them so much, because it is a coming of age novel, but it is so much more. It is a novel of transitions, between life and death, between a town and a ghost town, between a father figure and a son, and between a young mother and a young widow. The story takes place in the fictional (notional, as Wikipedia calls it) town of Gilead, Iowa, where Ames’ son will read the letter at some unspecified point after his death and in the letter he will find out about the history of his family, and his town, and those closest to them. With touchy subjects randomly thrown in the elegant story is often jarred by the realities of life. Life and death, both interracial and intergenerational marriage, the failings and successes of children (and parents), children out-of-wedlock, poverty, abolition and slavery all make appearances throughout the novel from brief reminiscences of his grandfather to the current calamity of his eponym, his best friends son.
The most beautiful thing about the novel is the language itself. Although I have read more beautifully written novels, there was something so poetic about the language and Robinson’s phrases and ways of describing things. Robinson is truly a craftsperson when it comes tot the English language and has created a wondrously described world/town/person that is dying (rebirthing). The word that probably struck me as most beautiful (aside from the quotes) is ‘susurrus.’ I had never heard this and after looking it up I found out it means ‘a whispering or rustling sound; a murmur.’ How beautiful is the onomatopoeia in that word?
Overall if you don’t mind slogging through a book, I would recommend this. It’s not a challenging book, however, it can make you think and should move you with the beauty of its language and the simplicity and elegance of the story and it’s characters.
Quotes from Gilead
“And it seemed beautiful to me. It is an amazing thing to watch people laugh, the way it sort of takes them over. Sometimes they really do struggle with it. I see that in church often enough. So I wonder what it is and where it comes from, and I wonder what it expends out of your system, so that you have to do it till you’re done, like crying in a way, I suppose, except laughter is much more easily spent.” (5)
“For me writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn’t writing prayers, as I was often enough. You feel that you are with someone…And there’s an intimacy in it. That’s the truth.” (19)
“Children seem to think every pleasant thing has to be a surprise.” (117)
“I wish I could leave you certain of the images in my mind, because they are so beautiful that I hate to think they will be extinguished when I am. Well, but again, this life has its own mortal loveliness. And memory is not strictly mortal in its nature, either. It is a strange thing, after all, to be able to return to a moment, when it can hardly be said to have any reality at all, even in its passing. A moment is such a slight thing, I mean, that its abiding is a most gracious reprieve.” (162)