Monday, October 19, 2020

Book Review: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Gilead (Gilead, #1)Gilead.  Marilynne Robinson.  Picador (2004). 247 pages.  Genre:  Historical Fiction.

First Line:  "I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I'm old, and you said, I don't think you're old."

Summary:  John Ames married later in life for the second time after having lost his first wife and child.  He never thought he would marry again and he certainly never thought he would have a child.  But he did.  And now he is old and has heart problems.  His son is only 7 years old.  There are so many things he wants to tell his son and he fears he may never get a chance.  So he begins writing him a letter.  

The letter is meant to tell him about those who have gone before him.  It is also meant to tell him those things a father should tell his son.  Sometimes the letter describes what is happening while John is writing the letter.  The letter keeps coming back to the son of his good friend Reverend Boughton.  John Ames Boughton was named after John.  He is the Boughton's prodigal son.  But he has come back home for a visit after being away for many years.  John finds that he doesn't trust him and this comes across in what he says to him.  In the letter he wrestles with this.

My thoughts:  The style of Gilead is unique.  There are no chapters, just space between entries.  The book is one long letter written in stream of consciousness style.  As John Ames thinks of things he wants to tell his son he adds them to the letter.  There is something of a structure in that he will tell about what is going on in their lives on the particular day that he is writing.  He describes what he sees, what his son and wife are doing and who visited them or where they went.  There is also progress in the storyline with Reverend Boughton's son.   

John Ames is a pastor.  His father and grandfather were also pastors.  He wants to tell his son about them and also about what it is like be a pastor.  He wants to pass on his beliefs.  But he also lets his son see the struggles he goes through in his mind.  Struggles with thinking and doing the right things.  John Ames is very relatable and many of us can identify with what he is going through.  

The book is beautifully written.  It gives the reader a glimpse of Iowa in the 1950's, as well as earlier through John's telling of things that happened in the past.  I expected the story to be sad, but I really didn't find that to be the case.  It was beautiful and warm and full of humanity. 


"My parents told me stories about how he read everything he could put his hands on, memorized a whole book of Longfellow, copied maps of Europe and Asia and learned all the cities and rivers."

"But I've developed a great reputation for wisdom by ordering more books than I ever had time to read, and reading more books, by far, than I learned anything useful from, except, of course, that some very tedious gentlemen have written books."

"People don't talk much now about the Spanish influenza, but that was a terrible thing, and it struck just at the time of the Great War, just when we were getting involved in it.  It killed soldiers by the thousands, healthy men in the prime of life, and then it spread into the rest of the population.  It was like a war, it really was.  One funeral after another, right here in Iowa.  We lost so many of the young people.  And we got off pretty lightly.  People came to church wearing masks, if they came at all.  They'd sit as far from each other as they could."

"But in fact one lapse of judgment can quickly create a situation in which only foolish choices are possible."

"Well, but you two are dancing around in your iridescent little downpour, whooping and stomping as sane people ought to do when they encounter a thing so miraculous as water."

"We know nothing about heaven, or very little, and I think Calvin is right to discourage curious speculations on things the Lord has not seen fit to reveal to us."


  1. I haven't read this book. It sounds like a touching story.

    1. It was a lovely story. I definitely recommend it.

  2. This sounds like an interesting book. The way you describe it being written is the same way I write my own letters. ;-)

  3. I love letters like that! I remember my grandma reading me letters she received from her sister and that is how they were written. She would write a little and then put it down only to pick it up again later and write some more. It really gives you a sense of the person's daily life.