Review: Gilead

There is a balm in Gilead, to heal the sin-sick soul. Those are the words to an old song, words that kept rising in my spirit as I was reading the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. I have been telling myself for years that I should read the book, and I should have listened to myself years ago. This book is a treasure, an old chest spilling light when you lift the lid. My copy came from the library, but I will buy my own as soon as I can. This is a book I want to keep close to me always.

Gilead is a rambling letter from an elderly father, John Ames, to his young son, written because John knows he will not be there for his son's adulthood. He reflects on life, on family, on faith, circling round and round his family's memories, taking them a bit deeper each time. At the same time, he is remarkably transparent about the issues he is working through in the present, centered mainly around his ne'er-do-well namesake, the son of his best friend, one who seems to be worming his way into the heart of John's much younger wife and their son. On the whole, this does not sound like a riveting book. But it is.

"There have been heroes here, and saints and martyrs, and I want you to know that. Because that is the truth, even if no one remembers it. To look at the place, it's just a cluster of houses strung along a few roads, and a little row of brick buildings with stores in them, and a grain elevator and a water tower with Gilead written on its side, and the post office and the schools and the playing fields and the old train station, which is pretty well gone to weeds now. But what must Galilee have looked like? You can't tell so much from the appearance of a place."

This is what is so marvelous about John Ames. He sees the sacredness in the simple things of life. He looks at life from a place of deep instruction, deep faith, deep humility, deep simplicity; he looks at life and he loves it. He wrestles with its imperfections, with his own imperfections, with those of his father and his grandfather, and he loves it all without loving or justifying the imperfections themselves. This is a balance that few of us attain to, and it is absolutely awe-inspiring to spend a few hours living inside the head of a man who has arrived there, however difficult the journey and precarious the position.

A book to read, to re-read, to cherish.