Thursday, December 13, 2007

Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

Oh, look, an actual book-related post. I bet some of you think I've forgotten how to read and have been subsisting on merely audio books.

But I have been savoring this book. A book like this doesn't come along all that often, and although I am 50 pages from the end, I am reluctant to rush through what I have left.

My preference in a book is always for a character-driven story. This book has a strong voice in the central character and narrator, John Ames, a preacher, son of a preacher, and grandson of a preacher. His story takes the form of a letter/journal he is addressing to his young son. He is well over 70 years old, and has a child by a rather unexpected late marriage (he lost a wife and child as a younger man). Knowing that he will probably not live to see his young son grow into manhood, to guide and instruct him as matures, he is writing this journal to share some of his history, faith, and wisdom with his son.

The journal becomes a record of both past and present, as he relates stories of his own father and grandfather--tales that carry back to the very Civil War, tales of the Underground Railroad, of drought, fire, death, senility, poverty, and friendship. At the same time, he writes of daily events--little things that happen in the home, that he knows his son will not likely remember, as well as many of his own fears and doubts about what will become of his wife and child after he is gone. He is especially worried about his wife's friendship with a man who has a checkered past--the son of his own best friend.

I don't know how the story is going to end--I don't want it to end--and yet, I'm aware that nothing I have written here makes it sound like a very compelling story. What makes it so gripping is John Ames' philosophical meanderings--the faith and doubts that war within his heart, his very love of life and all that it encompasses.

Here's a sample:
There is a tendency among some religious people even to invite ridicule and to bring down on themselves an intellectual contempt which seems to me in some cases justified. Nevertheless, i would advise you against defensiveness on principle. It precludes the best eventualities along with the worst. At the most basic level, it expresses a lack of faith. As I have said, the worst eventualities can have great value as experience. And often enough, when we think we are protecting ourselves, we are struggling against our rescuer.

This bit was one of my favorites:

He used phrases like "forward-looking." You'd have thought a bad argument could be put beyond question by its supposed novelty, for heaven's sake. And a lot of the newness of this new thinking was as old as Lucretius, which he knew as well as I did.

This book is just full of little bits of wisdom and philosophy, but doesn't come within a country mile of being "preachy" or presenting Christianity as a sort of grape-flavored cure-all that guarantees a "happily ever after" life. John Ames' life as a thinking, believing man is a real life--one with disappointments, questions that can't always be answered, quiet pleasures, and a deep sense of personal responsibility. "To whom much is given, much shall be required."

Highly recommended, but don't rush through it.


At 2:43 AM , Blogger 3M said...

One of my favorites!

At 3:01 AM , Blogger BookGal said...

I completely understand your point. I think I read this one at the wrong time. I didn't have enough patience for it so it felt flat to me.

At 8:40 AM , Blogger Literary Feline said...

I keep seeing this in the store, but I always seem to pass it by after giving it some consideration. Your review makes me want to pick up a copy the next time I see it. I am glad you are enjoying it!


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