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by Marilynne Robinson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
256 pages, $23.00
The landscape between Des Moines and Omaha is simple and uniform, fields of corn and soybeans rolling on for hundreds of miles. It is here, in the southwest Iowa town of Gilead, that the Reverend John Ames lives, loves, preaches, and prepares himself for death.
Although Ames is the narrator of Marilynne Robinson's new novel, Gilead, it seems a stretch to call him its protagonist, since so little of the action takes place outside of his own mind. The seventy-five-year-old clergyman reflects on his ancestors, shares his thoughts about religion, describes the taste of a honeysuckle blossom. He and his surroundings are thoroughly American, but Robinson's storytelling brings to mind Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past or Eric Rohmer's film cycle Six Moral Tales—slow-paced French narratives that concern themselves almost exclusively with their characters' inner worlds.
Gilead is written as a letter to Reverend Ames's young son, whom we see leaping through sprinklers and making crayon drawings in a patch of sunlight. The boy, growing up in the 1950s, seems blithely unaware that he comes from a long line of morally-burdened clergymen, all named John Ames. Reverend Ames's grandfather was an abolitionist who moved from Maine to the Midwest to help stem the spread of slavery. His son, Reverend Ames's father, was a pacifist who despised the older man for helping to ignite the Civil War. Throughout the text, Reverend Ames ponders the philosophies of his forefathers—along with Christian theology, European existentialism, and his own intensely personal experiences.
The Reverend tells his son that he has written 67,500 pages of sermons in his lifetime, and whole sections of Gilead read like excerpts from those sermons. Some passages deal directly with biblical stories; others find religious symbolism in everyday events, like a young couple playfully shaking water from a wet tree branch. The few scenes of interpersonal drama center on Reverend Ames's complicated relationship with John Ames Boughton, his best friend's black sheep son, who forces him to confront the murkier sides of his own nature.
Much has been made of the fact that Gilead is Robinson's first work of fiction since her debut novel, Housekeeping, was published in 1981. As a story, Housekeeping is far more turbulent. Its central characters are two orphaned sisters undergoing a painful adolescence, living with an eccentric aunt who would rather be jumping railway cars and subsisting on canned sardines. With this new tale of a gentle Iowa preacher, Robinson does not resume her fiction career where Housekeeping left off. Instead, Gilead seems to follow naturally from Robinson's 1999 essay collection, The Death of Adam, in which she defends the Puritans, questions Darwinism, and declares: "I have spent my life watching, not to see beyond the world, merely to see, great mystery, what is plainly before my eyes."
Like the author who created him, Reverend Ames is interested in worldly matters—the father-son relationship, the history of race relations in America. But the earthly things in Gilead seem almost transparent, stained-glass panels made luminous by the prospect of eternity. As the Reverend writes to his little boy:
There's a shimmer on a child's hair, in the sunlight. There are rainbow colors in it, tiny, soft beams of just the same colors you can see in the dew sometimes. They're in the petals of flowers, and they're on a child's skin. Your hair is straight and dark, and your skin is very fair.... All that is fine, but it's your existence I love you for, mainly. Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined. I'm about to put on imperishability. In an instant, in the twinkling of an eye.
Marilynne Robinson lives in Iowa City, where she is a teacher at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. I spoke to her by telephone on November 4.
I had to look up Gilead on the map. It's a real town in southwest Iowa, but the name also has biblical significance.
The biblical resonances of the name Gilead were certainly in my mind.
I remember that Jacob fled with the idols to Gilead. And Elijah was from Gilead.
Yes, and Gilead comes up in Jeremiah 8:22: "Is there no balm in Gilead?" It also comes up in Obadiah. The biblical Gilead has a very complex history. It's a town that's criticized for being rich and hard-hearted; it's lamented because it's been destroyed; and it's also used as a symbol of what can be restored, what can be hoped for. I like the name because it has various histories and meanings.
I grew up quite close to Iowa City, and one of the things that really struck me about Gilead was its peaceful, pastoral atmosphere. Housekeeping, on the other hand was set in wild mountain scenery, and the story itself was much more turbulent. How much do physical surroundings influence the events and characters in your stories?
Flashbacks: "Blood and Justice" (May 18, 2000)
A collection of articles from 1861 to 1922 commemorates Nat Turner and John Brown—two men who came to symbolize the radical struggle against slavery in the decades prior to the Civil War.
I think quite a bit. Landscape is very important to me in that I see people's lives as being inevitably colored by the landscape. And as domesticated as it looks, one of the things I've enjoyed while reading about the Middle West is finding out what a dramatic history it has. One of the interesting things I learned is that John Brown prepared for Harper's Ferry just outside of Iowa City, near West Branch, where Herbert Hoover was born.
All of the characters in Gilead are white, but African Americans play a major offstage role. What is the significance of all those references—the Civil War-era abolitionist flashbacks, the burning of the black church, the interracial family that appears at the end?
Iowa had a very gallant history in the Civil War. I read that it lost a larger percentage of its soldiers than many other states. It was a very active abolitionist state, and it always had black students in its universities. And yet, all those things being true, the passion for equality that was so strong in the early settlements was forgotten. Iowa fell into the pattern of other states. In essential ways, its heritage didn't fade. For example, no law against intermarriage ever made it onto the books in Iowa. Nevertheless there was a kind of social conservatism that suppressed that history.
One of the things I'm interested in and very struck by is the fact that the abolitionists understood equality, and they integrated their institutions from the beginning. They integrated their churches, they integrated their town governments. They did all these things before the Civil War. And then something happened in the culture that not only made all this recede, but made people forget that it ever happened. It's an amazing thing, and quite a frightening thing, that a culture could be capable of amnesia in such a drastic form.
There's one pivotal scene where John Ames's father, who opposes the Civil War, goes to "sit with the Quakers." Could you explain the significance of that?