By Ken Knudsen
Marilynne Robinson, who teaches creative writing at the University of Iowa, recently won not only the National Book Critic’s Award, but also the Pulitzer Prize for her novel Gilead.
Robinson has long been a kind of mentor to me. Her earlier book The Death of Adam is astonishingly original; here she asks us to reread our cultural heritage that has often been distorted by certain iconoclastic elites.
But Gilead is even more a work of insights and revelations. Established critics are unanimous in their praise. For example: “[Hers] is a mind as religious as it is literary … a beautiful work – dense and grave and lucid” (James Woods); Gilead is a quiet, deeply moving celebration of the wonders and sustaining bewilderments of human consciousness … the book is a great gift” (Thomas Gardner).
The scene is set in a small village called Gilead in 1950s Iowa. Pastor Ames is 76 years old, suffering from angina. He hopes to pass on to his beloved seven-year-old son (the only child from his marriage to a much younger woman in his congregation) a history, as it were, not only of his life but also that of his father and grandfather. They too were pastors.
book, then, is a series of reminisces, a long letter,
if you wish, of moral advice, wistful depictions of small
towns and close-knit communities, a defense of traditional
values, a celebration of faith in a world haunted by
evil. In short, an antidote to a pervasive nihilism in
the very air we breathe. (To understand what “modernism” can
do to a brilliant, sensitive soul, read Karen Armstrong’s
The Spiral Circle.)
But let’s not forget the marvelous portraits of characters, the grandfather for example, a Civil War veteran: “A wild haired, one-eyed scrawny old fellow with a crooked beard like a paint brush left to dry with the lacquer on it.” Wow!
The book ends with these serene words as Pastor Ames senses that the end is near: “I’ll pray, then I’ll sleep.”
A book to ponder, savor; perhaps, then, a revelation?