Book Recomendation: Gilead

I am always highly irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality. –Flannery O’Connor

Nathan’s post from last week reminded me of the need for continually reading good books in order to flourish in life and faith. One tip he mentioned was to “stretch yourself” every once and awhile. Though he didn’t mention it specifically, I know Nathan agrees with me that one important way to stretch ourselves is not only to read different levels of difficulty, but also different genres of literature.

I think we do a good job around here of pointing people toward excellent theological and devotional resources. (I personally have a list 10 books deep of the next Christian books I plan on reading.) But sometimes I have a hard time deciding which novel to pick up next. I am not as steeped in the world of fiction literature as I am in the world of theological literature. Which novels are excellently written? Which have themes that resonate with the Gospel story, or not? Which novels wrestle with the most complex issues of our day? Which are beautiful? Which are worth my time?

One book that was recommended to me recently by a comment on this very blog (thanks Blazer) turned out to be one of the best novels I have ever read. I wholeheartedly pass that recommendation on to you.

Gilead, written by Marilynne Robinson and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, is the story of John Ames, a pastor in the small, fictional town of Gilead, Iowa during the first half of the 1900’s. The book is comprised of a collection of letters / journal entries, written from Ames to his son.

Ames first wife died early and after years as a bachelor he remarried a woman younger than himself late in life. They had a son together. Now, after receiving the news that his heart is failing at the age of 76, he sets down to tell his 7 year old son what he wants him to know as he grows into the man he will never meet.

This style is unique and lends itself to certain challenges. It is a meandering book comprised of diary entries – long and short – that jump without warning from stories of his grandfather in Kansas, to moral exhortation, to reminiscences about meeting his wife, to practical everyday struggles doing the work at the church, to current fears that worry John about his son’s future life. Though it meanders, it is anything but random. One reviewer wrote:

“Gradually, Robinson’s novel teaches us how to read it, suggests how we might slow down to walk at its own processional pace, and how we might learn to coddle its many fine details.”

That, in fact, was my favorite part of the book. Robinson gives more weight, more importance, and more life to the mundane details that comprise all our lives than I would ever credit to them.

On seeing light:

“I was struck by the way the light felt that afternoon. I have paid a good deal of attention to light, but no one could begin to do it justice. There was a feeling of a weight of light — pressing the damp out of the grass and pressing the smell of sour sap out of the boards on the porch floor and burdening even the trees as a little late snow would do. It was the kind of light that rests on your shoulders the way a cat lies on your lap. So familiar.”

A look on his wife’s face:

“That look I never in my life saw on any other face besides your mother’s. It’s a look of fierce pride, very passionate and stern. I’m always a little surprised to find my eyebrows unsinged after one of those looks.”

In everyday interactions:

“When you encounter another person, when you have dealing with anyone at all, it is as if a question is being put to you. What is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation?”

In this way Marilynne Robinson reminds me of Annie Dillard. Both look at the same setting, the same situation, the same event that I do, but both see much more in it than I ever would.

One of the central themes of the book is the story of the prodigal son. Ames’ best friend, another pastor in Gilead, is also old and ailing. His son, now a grown man in his 40s, returns to see his father. But the return is met with mixed emotions for Ames. This man has done terrible things in his life, has betrayed his family, has broken hearts and ruined lives. Sitting on the porch of Ames’ friend’s home, Ames is asked by this man: “Can people truly change?” This may be the central question in the book.

Can people truly change?

My interpretation of the book is that the answer it gives is “yes.” What is fascinating and beautiful and absolutely true, however, is that the sincere, life-change that eventually happens in this man is only a result of grace and forgiveness.

Robinson writes:
“Grace is a sort of ecstatic fire that takes things down to essentials.”

“Love is holy because it is like grace — the worthiness of its object is never really what matters.”

She seems to be saying that true human change is a result of grace infused (not earned) into a life.

So, to add on to Nathan’s reading tips, I have just one very specific tip: read Gilead.

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