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Gilead : a novel

by Marilynne Robinson

  Print book : Fiction  |  1st ed

1 of 1 people found this review helpful.
Good Read, well written   (2014-02-06)

Very Good

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by vleighton

This book tells the story of an individual struggling with serious theological and social questions. It succeeds both as a book of ideas and a credible fiction.


This book is written as though it were a series of letters from a narrator, named John Ames, to his son. Ames had married late in life, and his son is only seven when the narrator is in his seventies, is suffering from a heart condition and is close to death. He wants to communicate his mature ideas to his son when his son reaches maturity, so he writes these letters that he hopes his son will read many years later.


The technique of letters works. The author is able to maintain the credible voice of an older first person throughout. One feels that one is sharing the true inner thoughts of John Ames. It is a plausible conceit that the author actually found the letters.


The narrator is a minister who was born in 1880, in a small town in Iowa near the Kansas border and who is writing the letters in the 1950s. He stays in the small town all his life and dies there. This may sound like a dull premise, but the location is actually full of drama. The narrator's grandfather founded the town as an abolitionist trying to support a free Kansas, so the narrator remembers stories of the days of bloody Kansas. The narrator's grandfather and father were both ministers, and the narrative dwells on the issue of war and whether it can ever be justified by Christianity.


The narrator's older brother had gone to 19th century Germany to study, and comes back an atheist, so the narrative also wrestles with believe and doubt. Toward the end of the book, the narrator deals with his godson, who has committed some sinful acts, has had a rough life, and struggles with acceptance by his father and god-father. So the end of the book examines forgiveness and judgement. As one can see, for letters from No-wheres-ville Iowa, the book covers a lot of ground.


Although the book deals with a wide variety of issues, it does so from the eyes of a traditionally Protestant minister, so it could be read even by someone who, for religious reasons, only reads "Christian fiction." But that does not mean that it serves up platitudes and easy answers. It can also be enjoyed by someone who has wrestled with faith and rejected it. All in all, well done.

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