Marilynne Robinson’s novel reads like something almost outside of time – not so much dog-eared or yellowed but as if written in stone. So it comes as a surprise to realise the story is set in 1957, as revealed by its narrator, Congregationalist pastor the Reverend Jon Ames, a native of the small, fictional Iowa town from which the novel takes its title. Gilead is Ames’ account of his life and those of his father and grandfather (also pastors) for the benefit of his seven-year-old son, to be passed to him after the elderly Ames succumbs to a heart condition.
Ames makes frequent reference to Gilead’s status as a centre for abolitionist agitation – the campaign to end slavery in the U.S. (Congregational churches, independent in governance and spirit, were to the fore in many American social reform movements). But otherwise, Gilead gives the impression of being away from where the real action takes place. Not that lack of action perturbs Jon Ames, whose enthusiasm for a life lived ordinary nonetheless embraces the rich extraordinariness of the landscape around him:
“I love the prairie! So often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turn radiant at once, that word ‘good’ so profoundly affirmed in my soul that I am amazed I should be allowed to witness such a thing.”
The rich lyricism of Robinson’s language is like scripture and Gilead’s narrative seems deliberately separate from time, with an almost eternal quality, firm in its belief in the goodness of human nature uncorrupted by any temporal slips into violence or corruption (sin). There is nothing secular about Robinson or her writing – she is a deeply Christian writer. Yet this is not the Christianity of closed minds or harsh judgment of the other. It is meditative, gentle and humble. In her essay, “Open Thy Hand Wide,” which appears in When I was a Child I Read Books (2012), Robinson asserts her own liberal Christianity and argues for a reinterpretation in particular of Calvinism to remember Calvin’s own assertion that Paul’s message ‘not to be weary in well-doing’ should be embraced as Christian imperative. Jon Ames is frequently hard on himself throughout Gilead’s narrative but no reader of this book meets a selfish narrator.
Gilead is also a writer’s book. Ames’ vocation and his thoughts about it mirror that of a writer – something that is difficult to fulfil yet cannot be ignored.