Gilead by Marilynne Robinson


“Gilead” means “hill of testimony” or “mound of witness.” Its meaning is taken from a mountainous region east of the Jordan River. In Marilynne Robinson’s novel of the same name, Gilead is a small farm town in Iowa. Living in the town is the dying (he has a heart condition) reverend John Ames, a preacher’s son – and also a preacher’s grandson. John, having married only late in life, has a young son himself, and this novel is the text of one long letter to his son, intended to be read by him when he “grows up.”

It’s not too often that I decide to read a book when knowing so little of “what it’s about.” All I knew of this one was that it seemed constantly praised by those whose opinions I value, and that it won the 2005 Pulitzer prize. It certainly had the credentials. In fact, had I known more about it, I might have been scared off due to the strongly religious themes (with me being a relative heathen). That would have been a shame, as I would have missed out on a beautifully written book.

For me, Ames’s lengthy letter represents the universal struggle one has when one gets older and sees the end of life approaching. Questions like, “What’s the meaning of life after all?” and “How can we best share what our multitude of experiences have taught us with our offspring.” It could be argued that these are unanswerable questions – or at least that any answers would be woefully incomplete, but Ames sure gives answering them the old college try. I guess it’s what one would expect from someone who has been able to write thousands of sermons in his lifetime (an output rivaling St. Augustine – as Ames says, “It’s humiliating to have written as much as Augustine, only to have to find a way to dispose of it.” – this when contemplating cleaning out the attic)

Not being a philosopher or theologian, I feel unqualified to review this book on those levels, but I will say I enjoyed it in spite of my inexperience with those fields. I fell in love with Robinson’s writing quickly, too. A couple favorite passages that are representative:

“I remember walking out into the dark and feeling as if the dark were a great, cool sea and the houses and the sheds and the woods were all adrift in it, just about to ease off their moorings. I always felt like an intruder then, and I still do, as if the darkness had a claim on everything.”

“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 incandescence you see in people when the charm of a thing strikes them, or the humor of it.”

It’s also amazing how someone with sufficient erudition, can suffuse what may have otherwise been considered just another ordinary tale of a life with such magic it becomes a Pulitzer prize winner. This was perhaps my favorite line in the book:

“…this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe.”

That blew me away. Have you read Gilead? What did you think of it? Can you recommend anything else written by Robinson? I think I want more…

(below: art from the original NY Times review in November 2004)



  1. Dee said,

    September 6, 2012 at 10:32 am

    Thank you for finding this book for me …..
    It takes a spirit (like yours) to see the spirit he’s reading face to face as an equal …. I love your blog – and will definitely read this book. At the moment, I am reading a rather obscure one – The Horse of Pride – a memoir written by a native of Brittany about his beginnings as a dirt poor child of peasants mired in the far-off world of pre-WW1 western France …. deeply touching – not such great lit as Robinson. Leaving for Brittany soon and wanted to have this foundation.


    • Jay said,

      September 6, 2012 at 12:34 pm

      Hi Dee,
      Thanks for your comment. You are too kind. 🙂

      I hadn’t heard of your “obscure” book before, but I tagged it as “to read” on my account so I’ll remember it. I recently read Zola’s powerful short story, The Flood, which is set in France. One of my favorite selections of my old BookClub was Stendahl’s The Red and the Black, which, though likely set in a different region than you mention, did evoke a strong sense of the countryside.

      I hope you have a great and safe trip! You’ll have to let know how it went in a future comment. 🙂



  2. Dale said,

    September 6, 2012 at 2:52 pm

    Glad you liked it. Her novel “Home” is the same story except from the point of view of Robert Boughton, Jack Boughton and Glory Boughton. And even though, you kind of know the plot – it’s the writing and the thoughts of the characters that make it a completely different experience.


    • Jay said,

      September 9, 2012 at 11:13 am

      Hi Dale,
      Thanks do remaking me aware of “Home.” I’m sure I will be reading more of Robinson soon…


    • Jay said,

      September 9, 2012 at 11:17 am

      *”thanks for making me aware” damn autocorrect 🙂


  3. nzumel said,

    September 6, 2012 at 3:44 pm

    This sounds lovely.


  4. Alex said,

    September 7, 2012 at 7:44 am

    Like you I’ve heard only that everyone fall in love with it all the time. Didn’t even know about the story and also like you, the religious part would probably put me off. But that sentence about Troy! Powerful stuff indeed. Do you think it would work well in audio format?


    • Jay said,

      September 9, 2012 at 11:21 am

      Hi Alex,
      The “phenomenon” I experienced with this book was that it was sometimes hard to pick it up again after I finished a reading session. When I did pick it up, I became almost fully absorbed in it though. This is very rare for my reading habits. I think you’d like it.

      I’m not one to speculate about audiobooks, I’m afraid. I’ve never really made it through one (I’ve tried while commuting/driving but my concentration is too poor). Maybe if I start taking the bus a coupe times a week as I plan to, I can try again.


  5. Dale said,

    September 9, 2012 at 9:45 pm

    Hi Jay, just FYI, I started reading Johnny Tremain. Its all coming back!


    • Jay said,

      September 11, 2012 at 12:41 pm

      I’m past the halfway point now myself. I’m amazed at how much I’d forgotten. I’m also amazed that I can recall this is the book where I learned certain words, like “poultice” and “snuff.” I’d forgotten about the Rab character but I remember certain scenes with him, like the one with the “wormy” apple. It’s been great fun re-reading thus far.


  6. Megan said,

    September 11, 2012 at 9:39 am

    I read Gilead a few years ago, and I just loved it. Sometimes I found the plot a little hard to follow because the writing is so meandering, especially in the beginning. Normally that would really put me off a book, but her writing was so beautiful that it never stopped me. I’m an athiest who wishes she could believe, and it’s books like this that get me as close to believing as I ever get. I really appreciate being able to see the world from the perspective of a believer like John.


    • Jay said,

      September 11, 2012 at 12:45 pm

      Hi Megan,
      Very well stated! It sounds like your reading experience with this one was similar to mine. John Ames is one of those characters – that I am fortunate to sometimes run across – who I know that, in spite of being very different from myself, I would be friends with. Good friends at that.


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