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By Marilynne Robinson
Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2004
Hardcover, $23.00 (256 pages)
ISBN: 0374153892

Itís been almost twenty-five years since the appearance of Marilynne Robinsonís first novel, the critically acclaimed Housekeeping.  In the years since, sheís published two nonfiction works, but no second novel, until Gilead appeared this year.  Itís been a long wait. 

Housekeeping, Robinsonís first novel, was a revelation.  Set in the Pacific Northwest, it chronicles the dissolution of a small, troubled family, focusing on the two youngest members, sisters whose motherís suicide begins the novel.  It is a dark but moving novel about the joys and sorrows of family, of community, and of respectability.  Its narrator, Ruthie, is a quiet and awkward teenager growing up in the shadow of her sister Lucilleís beauty and popularity.  Ruthie eventually falls under the influence of her transient aunt Sylvie, who arrives to care for the sisters after their motherís death.  Ruthie, at novelís end, disappears from Fingerbone, choosing Sylvie over Lucille, transience over stability, self-assertion over conformity, lighting out for some territory beyond the scope of the novel.   

Since its appearance in 1981, Housekeeping has been in print continuously and has become a staple in American literature courses.  It was adapted into a beautiful, quirky film.  Those who loved the novel, like me, have returned to it again and again, finding with every new reading that Housekeeping, like the best of all American literature, opens up newer and deeper revelations with each re-reading. 

So it was with some trepidation that I opened Gilead.  The novel had very big shoes to fill.  Gilead is an epistolary novel, a long letter written by a dying preacher from a small town in Ohio to his seven-year-old son, in hopes the son will read the letter as an adult.  The narrator, John Ames, has apparently led a quiet life, though he comes from three turbulent generations of preachers.  His grandfather was a fiery and probably violent one-eyed abolitionist, friend of John Brown, noted for tearing about antebellum Kansas well-armed and in bad company.  His father, on the other hand, was a pacifist, and the battles between grandfather and father ultimately drove the aging grandfather into the wilderness.  One of the narratorís earliest memories is a treacherous journey with his father into Kansas to find the grave of this grandfather.  

The pattern of father-son conflict is a leitmotif in the novel.  John Amesí pacifist father struggles for years with his son Edward, Johnís older brother, who is a committed atheist.  Finally, John Ames has a struggle of his own, not with a son, but a godson, John Ames Boughton, the son of his best friend.  It is primarily with this struggle, and its final resolution, that the novel concerns itself.  Jack has returned to town after years of self-imposed exile.  He is a black sheep of the Boughton family whose troublesome childhood was crowned by the fathering and abandonment of a child, a sin his godfather finds impossible to forgive.  

If this nearly perfect little novel has a fault, it is in the balance between story and speculation.  There may be too much of the latter for some readers.  A very short, unpleasant theological conversation between John Ames and Jack, for example, will bring on pages of speculation regarding manís capacity for belief, his inclination to doubt, the inadequacy of human beings to attain to any comprehensive understanding of God, and so on. 

In interviews, Robinson, who teaches at the University of Iowa Writersí Workshop, has praised nineteenth-century Americaís great writers: Melville, Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau.  Any reader of the transcendentalists (and their critics) will know that the most telling characteristic of these writers is their attraction to abstraction, a fascinating and occasionally maddening tendency to turn aside from the story to speculate on its larger meanings.  Moby Dick interrupts itself so frequently with philosophy and philology and theology and aesthetics that the Pequod nearly sails on forever.   

And so it is with Robinson.  Blame it on her narrator, perhaps, who is dying and can be forgiven for allowing his attention to wander from the surface of the water to its lower depths.  Like Ahab, he knows he will be striking through the mask any moment now.   

Suffice it to say that this is not a plot-driven novel.  It is not a page-turner.  There are a few quietly-introduced mysteries to draw us in, but for the most part, we read on because everything we have read so far has been beautiful, because we care about the characters and what happens to them, not because a bomb is ticking.  The book develops a plot, but one reads to savor John Amesí careful observations of, and about, his world.  Perhaps John Ames is less grand than Ahab, but he is nevertheless a man who has spent a lifetime tugging at the corners of the veil, struggling to see through, and so worth our attention.


Edwin McAllister
Southern Scribe Reviews

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