Last Sunday was a very good day and a very beautiful one: I did the work I intended to do in the morning, finishing up a review for Litro and doing the research I’d planned, and then I went for a walk to the nearest Little Free Library to drop off some proofs and old books, which is a roundtrip of about forty minutes. The weather was beautiful; it was the first day of this year that the air didn’t bite, which is always a good day, and the sun was shining in between scraps of drifting cloud. I started off in my jacket but didn’t need it. There were crocuses and snowdrops and daffodils in gardens every other block. On the way home, I bought a fourpack of tinned cider. We no longer have access to a garden, so instead I sat on our front step, barefoot and wearing sunglasses, and drank my way through three tinnies (waving at the downstairs neighbours through their front room curtains when I returned with refills), and re-read a book both completely beautiful and completely irrelevant to any other project I’m working on right now, which is Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. According to my book journal, the last time I read this was in February 2008, which would have been my sophomore year of high school. I’ve read Robinson more recently than that—her fourth novel, Lila, made a huge impression on me over Christmas in 2015—but although I did remember the outline of Gilead, much of the detail was lost on me as a fifteen-year-old reader, and probably rightly so. Returning to it at twenty-eight was a good choice.
Better criticism on Marilynne Robinson’s work has been written than I can muster in the morning hour before work, I’m afraid, so this is not going to be a critical essay, just a few comments and responses to what I saw in Gilead this time around. First of all, it is almost the only mainstream contemporary novel I can think of that takes seriously, and allows its characters to take seriously, the notion of divinity as Christian tradition frames it. (The only other one that springs to mind, apart from Robinson’s other work, is Jamie Quatro’s Fire Sermon. Possibly William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace, though there’s a distance between the characters and the narrator, who is looking back on events after several decades, that renders faith less potent somehow. Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River is not in the same category, to my mind, because the purpose of God in that novel is to dazzle the reader with miracle and sentiment, and in my experience that is not a representative modus operandi for God in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. I’m willing to change my mind, though.) John Ames, the minister who is writing the entire book as a letter to his young son, born to him in old age, has lived his entire life within this framework of religious belief, although he has not been without doubt. It allows him, and Robinson, to wrestle genuinely with the ideas of grace and redemption that other writers can only gesture at because the stakes in those novels are not as high. In Gilead, it is not only Jack Boughton, the prodigal son, who needs redeeming; it is also, and urgently, John Ames himself, whose jealousy, misunderstanding and distrust must be overcome if he is to die well and rest peacefully. Blessing Jack, as Jack’s father (also a minister) cannot do, is the crowning redemptive act of John Ames’s life, and when he does it at the end of the book, he has reached a peace with God and himself, the legacies of his own father and grandfather, and left a good legacy for his son. (Significantly, also, Jack’s full name is John Ames Boughton; he is named after Ames, who lost a wife and child of his own as a young man, and Ames acknowledges that Jack is as much his son, in the ways that matter, as Boughton’s. Jack’s fate, in other words, is tied to Ames’s own. He carries the name forward into the world, making his forgiveness and redemption that much more a matter of personal urgency.)
Noticeable, also, is the presence of the American Civil War, which is threaded through the book with Robinson’s characteristic narrative subtlety. This was something I almost entirely missed when reading it as a teenager. John Ames’s grandfather, we learn, was a radical abolitionist preacher who came to “Bleeding Kansas” in the days when the fate of that state—it was about to enter the Union; would it be slave-holding or free?—seemed to hold the key to the fate of the nation. Old Ames, as I’ll call him, was uncompromising: he fought with the rebel John Brown, was hunted by Confederate soldiers, founded hamlets that existed only for the safe passage of fugitive slaves headed for Canada, and converted indifferent settler towns to the anti-slavery cause through tireless preaching. He is, of course, an impossible figure to live up to. As an old man, we are told, he was a pathological giver-away of things, to an extent that distressed and embarrassed his children and other townspeople: his adult daughter takes to hiding coins in jars of food in the pantry; more than once Ames remembers him taking clothes off of washing lines to give to vagrants; there is a memory of him emptying the entire collecting plate at the Presbyterian church into his hat one Sunday. Near the end of his life, he flees Gilead altogether and returns to Kansas, without telling the rest of his family where he has gone. Old Ames is haunted, in other words, by abolition and by what he has seen in the war. He has given his life to a cause and now it consumes him. A preacher who has killed, a freedom fighter who sees the rise of Jim Crow laws and sharecropping, and knows that little has changed despite the blood that was spilt, cannot rest anywhere. John Ames writes that he knows his father was a disappointment to his grandfather, and that he disappointed his father in turn: they are, not to put too fine an allegorical point on it, representative of the generations of post-Civil War America. They cannot help but fail to live up to the demands of their ancestors, who also failed themselves by speaking of liberty and perhaps believing in it, all while founding a nation upon the sin of keeping others in bondage. When John Ames blesses Jack Boughton because Boughton’s father can’t, it’s not only because old Boughton is dying; it’s because Jack has returned to tell Ames that he is married to a “colored woman”, Della, and has a mixed-race son.
Parents and children—specifically, though I think not exclusively, fathers and sons; sin and redemption; freedom and slavery; black and white; God and human. These are huge concerns and cannot necessarily be reconciled by intellect or ingenuity, no matter how hard or how cleverly we try. Ames acknowledges the nature of the problem in one of his theological asides:
Existence is the essential thing and the holy thing. If the Lord chooses to make nothing of our transgressions, then they are nothing. Or whatever reality they have is trivial and conditional[…] After all, why should the Lord bother much over these smirches that are no part of His Creation?
Well, there are a good many reasons why He should. We human beings do real harm. History could make a stone weep. I am aware that significant confusion enters my thinking at this point. […] Though I recall even in my prime foundering whenever I set the true gravity of sin over against the free grace of forgiveness.Gilead, Marilynne Robinson, p. 190
The only peace and reconciliation that comes to Ames is through blessing a young man who has, in the past, hurt others terribly. Where is the justice in that? Is Jack Boughton held accountable for the damage he did in his youth? Ames may blame him, but he cannot judge him. That, we are given to understand, is God’s job, as is forgiveness. Ames can only forgive him, too, in his own heart, and bless.
(It is also, to my surprise, a very funny book. Ames is alive to the ridiculous and the joyful as well as to the sacramental and solemn. Robinson’s descriptions of Ames and some friends as children baptizing a litter of cats, some of whom escape, rendering their status of salvation uncertain; or of a story told by his grandfather in which a stranger’s horse sinks through a weak road and a shed has to be moved on top of it; or of his young son camping out with his best friend Tobias but being kept awake all night (“You heard growling in the bushes. T. has brothers”), are all beautifully judged, with the lightest of touches. Nothing is ever grotesque, but there is a lot of joy in Ames’s recollections of what it has been like to live, and that includes, of course, the many things to be laughed at in the world.)
Worth returning to repeatedly. There was a very good long piece on Robinson’s fiction, relatively recently, in the New Yorker, which I think came out when her most recent book, Jack, did (retelling Jack Boughton’s life from his own perspective). I’ll try to find that again, too.
Gilead was first published in the US in 2004 by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. My edition is the 2006 Picador paperback.