Gilead Book Review

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We are a people of busyness. We measure the worth our days by our productivity, how well we fill our social calendars, our five-year plans. Life is parsed, analyzed, and evaluated through a never-ending stream of projects and checklists.

In Gilead, author Marilynne Robinson turns this idea of the good life completely on its head. Her novel is a remarkable meditation on faith, hope, and the beauty of existence, even in the midst of suffering.

The Profound Themes of Gilead

John Ames, a Congregationalist minster living in the tiny backwater town of Gilead, Iowa, is dying. He decides to write a letter to his seven-year-old son, telling him everything he thinks the boy should know about life. It’s both a chronicle of the Ames family history and a meditation on the present. And although Ames has borne many heavy crosses throughout his life and toiled in obscurity, he reflects on the whole of his existence with gratitude and wonder. He is a contemplative soul, and it is his habit of contemplation and prayer that allows him to live a fruitful life and recognize God’s loving providence in everything.

Ames’s love letter to his child reads like a guidebook to the way to live a peaceful, meaningful life—and the keys are gratitude, wonder, and faith.

Delight in God’s Creation

John Ames has a remarkable ability to contemplate the natural world and unearth the glory of the mundane. For him, nothing happens by chance; all of creation is imbued with meaning. Our God is a God of the physical as well as the spiritual. He has given us this good earth to enjoy. Ames fully appreciates this. The most ordinary of surroundings fill him with wonder, such as when he exclaims:

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.

A drop of rain, the rays of dawn, even the mysterious darkness of night, are all things of wonder for Ames. They are gifts to be valued and taken care of. Most importantly, they are signs of God’s presence, of His gratuitous love, of a telos in our lives. To recognize this love, though, we must be willing to sit still and let it touch us:

But the Lord is more constant and far more extravagant than it seems to imply. Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it, except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it.

Delight in the Goodness of Being

Ames recognizes that existence itself is a tremendous gift from the Lord. He loves the people around him not for anything they do, but simply because they exist. He knows their value lies in the fact that God made and sustains them. This appreciation manifests itself in a particularly poignant way whenever Ames writes about the pure delight his family inspires in him. His love for his wife and son flows from an absolute amazement in the simple fact that they are. Ames tells his son,

…but it’s your existence I love you for, mainly. Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined.

These are humble people, and on the surface there is nothing particularly remarkable about either one of them. But Ames never takes them for granted. He sees the splendor of their souls.

Trust in God’s Providence Even in the Midst of Uncertainty and Suffering

Ames has led a long and difficult life. He has endured the tragic loss of those dearest to him, a long dark period of loneliness, and misfortune brought on by friends. It would have been easy for him to become restless and bitter. Instead, he learns to see God’s hand in the tumultuous and dry periods of his life. He knows that only the soul that casts aside resentment and trusts in God to provide is truly free. Recalling the many years he spent on his own, bereft of any family, Ames acknowledges that, painful as that time was, God was with him through it all.

Now that I look back, it seems to me that in all that deep darkness a miracle was preparing. So I am right to remember it as a blessed time, and myself as waiting in confidence, even if I had no idea what I was waiting for.

Ames is also tempted to worry about what will become of his family after he dies. He is poor and wishes he could have provided more for them. He wishes, too, that he could have seen his son grow to manhood and guided him along the way he should go. But instead of succumbing to anxiety, Ames places this burden in the hands of the Lord. He is confident that God can work for good even in a difficult situation such as this, and peacefully entrusts his little boy to the Heavenly Father’s care.

That is how life goes—we send our children into the wilderness. Some of them on the day they are born, it seems, for all the help we can give them. Some of them seem to be a kind of wilderness unto themselves. But there must be angels there, too, and springs of water. Even that wilderness, the very habitation of jackals, is the Lord’s.

Gilead: A Final Review

By the book’s conclusion, the reader is left with a sense of deep peace. It becomes clear that a truly well-lived and beautiful life is not measured by productivity and achievements. John Ames’s goodbye letter to his son opens our eyes to the necessity of resting in God, of simply being, and of taking the time and silence to quiet our hearts and let Him do the work of healing and transforming our souls.

Have you ever read Gilead? What are your thoughts? Let’s talk about it in the comments below!

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Maria Bonvissuto is an editor who lives and works in Washington, DC. In her spare time she reads voraciously, plays classical guitar, and spends hours discussing the good, true, and beautiful with her friends.

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1 Comment

  • Reply
    Lindsay Schlegel
    July 31, 2018 at 7:28 am

    I love that this review is here! Gilead is my favorite novel of all time–I wrote about it for my senior thesis in undergrad. I love how Ames sees the extraordinary in the ordinary. He may not be Catholic, but this resonates with the Jesuit ideal of “God in all things.”

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