I recently finished reading Marilynne Robinson’s book, Gilead. My friend Kevin originally recommended the book to me. He knew that I liked Wendell Berry’s fiction, and he thought that this book had a similar resonance. Shortly after receiving Kevin’s recommendation, I happened to hear a few others referencing the book, as well. So, I felt really fortunate when I managed to check it out from the library just before some travel. And I enjoyed the book so much that I finished ninety percent of it in two days! (And for those who don’t know: this is super-fast reading for me)! My overall review of the book was that it was a refreshing read: just beautifully-written fiction. But it was also very insightful. In fact, I electronically-highlighted thirty-four different sections as I read to allow for further reference and reflection. It was a wonderful book.
The narrative is written as an extended letter / journal from an exceptionally-old father (in his late-70s) to his young son (age 7). The words will presumably be read long after the older man has died. So he writes with candor and clarity about his family history. He writes about his job as a pastor and preacher. And he writes about, well, the fabric of human existence.
His words have such a sweet sadness to them because of their context. Still, his tone is not overly sentimental or self-important. The old man is just providing his reflections on life and especially the miraculous feelings of love he discovered for his young wife and son. To me, the narrative felt like a healthy iteration of that reminder that this world is ever passing away. Still, God provides us with hope for eternity. He redeems our time in this life, as limited as it may be. It felt especially meaningfully to be reading the book on Ash Wednesday, where a priest told me: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Reading Gilead prompted me to think a lot more about generational dynamics — particularly my children, but also my parents and grandparents. The narrator is a third-generation pastor who’s served in the same community his whole life. He speaks with a sort of humility to which I aspire. And he very clearly loves his church and his friends in the community. But most of all, he loves his wife and his son — even though his time with them feels painfully short. He tries to cram all of his love and wisdom into a letter that can outlive him. And it’s gut-wrenching to feel that familial, faithful love on such a profound level.
I’ve already had more years of life overlap with my wife and children than the Reverend John Ames had with his. And I’m grateful that. Still, I see so many parallels between the things that old Ames wanted to tell his child and the things I want to tell my children. In fact, it occurred to me while I was reading the book that this is a significant part of the reason why I blog and why I write birthday letters to my kids each year. I want them to hear things straight from me — to be able to eventually match up their level of life experience and consciousness to my own: frozen in time back when I was in their shoes.
Books that have a strong sense of self and place appeal to me. And the book Gilead is exceptionally strong on this level. The town Gilead reminds me of Shelby (where I grew up) and Kent (where I live now). And I really resonated with the last page of the book, where the narrator says, “To me it seems rather Christlike to be as unadorned as this place is, as little regarded. I can’t help imagining that you will leave sooner or later, and it’s fine if you have done that, or you mean to do it. This whole town does look like whatever hope becomes after it begins to weary a little, then weary a little more. But hope deferred is still hope. I love this town.”