Monday, May 27, 2013

GILEAD by Marilynne Robinson

This Poor Gray Ember of Creation

GILEAD is a fictional place found in Iowa, where three generations of Rev. John Ames had live (allow me to call them grandfather, father, and son here). The whole of the story is written in epistolary form, addressed by the present Rev. John Ames to his seven-year-old son. To whom he one day wish will know him better more than just a renowned Congregationalist minister. Knowing that he will soon be gone, because of his ailing heart and age, the letter is a mixture of fatherly guidance, a history of a sort, and his inner turmoil.

One of the key themes of the book is the different forms of belief, as well as forms of unbelief. The grandfather acted from a certainty that visions were revealed to him, and he made himself useful to the cause of abolition. When eventually the smoke had cleared and the war was over, the grandfather felt he had lost his purpose. “My grandfather had nowhere to spend his courage, no way to feel it in himself. That was a great pity.” And so, the old man ended up giving away even their bare necessities to anyone who comes at their doorstep. Then, later on, he moved out alone to Kansas looking for a purpose.

“To be useful was the best thing the old men ever hoped for themselves, and to be aimless was their worst fear.”

Meanwhile, the father did not share the same belief, being particularly against violence, the two ended up having various disagreements. On top of that, the father was not as certain of his faith as the grandfather and son were. Being also a believer of visions, the son made several examples he had experienced himself -experiences that solidified his faith and courage to step up to his calling as a Congregationalist minister.

“I truly believe it is waste and ingratitude not to honor such things as visions, whether you yourself have seen them or not.”

Long before, his brother Edward left the faith and embraced atheism. It disappointed their father because he once believed that it was Edward who will take up the habit next to him. Yet, the father's initial disappointment was replaced by his own backsliding from the faith after taking up residence with Edward in the Gulf Coast. Much later, the narrator revealed that his father's last visit to him ended up in a confrontation, such was his irritation from what he heard from his father that it had cost him great sorrow.

“I myself was the good son, so to speak, the one who never left his father’s house – even when his father did, a fact which surely puts my credentials beyond all challenge.” 
“He thought he could excuse me from my loyalty, as if it were loyalty to him, as if it were just some well-intended mistake he could correct for me, as if it were not loyalty to myself at the very least, putting the Lord to one side, so to speak, since I knew perfectly well at that time, as I had for years and years, that the Lord absolutely transcends any understanding I have of Him, which makes loyalty to Him a different thing from loyalty to whatever customs and doctrines and memories I happen to associate with Him. I know that, and I knew it then.”

The other key theme of the book was the understanding of the human heart. The minister was stripped, and the human behind the habit was revealed. The narrator lost a wife and a daughter earlier in life. It left him in the darkness of loneliness for many years. However, his sweet release from the darkness was brought about by late marriage and a son. Like the light that slowly creeps around darkness, his son’s existence awed him beyond compare, and he tried to convey this feeling as clearly as he could.

“I can tell you this, that if I’d married some rosy dame and she had given me ten children and they had each given me ten grandchildren, I’d leave them all, on Christmas Eve, on the coldest night of the world, and walk a thousand miles just for the sight of your face, your mother’s face.”

For me, the humanity of Rev. John Ames was most revealed during the appearance of Jack Boughton, a namesake and godson actually. For years, he had prejudged this prodigal son. It took him plenty of prayers, reflections, and encounters to forgive and accept this son. It was later when he realized that his blessing for John Ames Boughton was the redemption of his own soul, and finally his peace.

“The Lord make His face to shine upon thee: The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.’ Nothing could be more beautiful than that, or more expressive of my feelings, certainly, or more sufficient, for that matter.”

GILEAis a profound insight into the heart of a dying man whose life had been shaped by faith and had experienced the fullness of life.  Rev. John Ames was a man of God, but a man just the same. Marilynne Robinson had found the most wonderful of prose to express thoughts on belief and had astonishingly managed to reveal the human heart in its barest form. With the simplest of language, Ms. Robinson was able to create beautiful memories (fictional it may be) that can make the reader stop and reflect with his/her surroundings. Just stop and enjoy what we have at the present, then wonder some more if we have been missing out on something.

“Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?”

GILEAD has turned me into a Marilynne Robinson fan. Don’t wait too long to be one too.

Book Details:
Author: Marilynne Robinson
Publisher: Picador
Publication: October 2005
Genre: Fiction
Rating: ★★★★★


F2F Discussion at Secret Garden Resort, Las PiƱas City

Again my warmest love and appreciation to all TFG members who joined the online and face to face discussion, including those who read and finished the book even though they were not able to join us. 


  1. Ooooooohhhh! I've never read a Marilynne Robinson. And I usually see her books in bookstores. I wanna read this! And judging from the feedback from your discussion, I think everyone liked this book.

  2. Reading your review reminded me again of how much I love this book. :)

  3. Hi Peter. Do give her a try. You will not regret it, I promise.

    Thank you, Monique.

  4. All those quotes are just <3. I'd like to read Home next. I hear it's equally beautiful. :)