What I’m Reading: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

I’ve recently finished  reading “Gilead” (2004) by Marilynne Robinson. Her first novel, “Housekeeping” (1981) got a Pulitzer Prize nomination, and Gilead got a Pulitzer Prize. It is one of the strangest books I’ve ever read. The book is essentially a letter from a father (John Ames) in his seventies to his young son, who is seven years old. The father has some illness – he refers to heart disease on page 4 – and knows he will die soon. He recounts the family history back to the time of his own grandfather’s involvement in the American Civil War. Most of the action takes place in the town of Gilead, Iowa, where the main character, his father, and grandfather have all been Congregationalist Ministers. The narrator is writing in 1956, although this did not become clear to me until he states in one passage that he will vote for Eisenhower in this current presidential election, if he lives long enough (p.107).

The book doesn’t really have a plot in the conventional sense. There is an antagonist: the son of the narrator’s best friend. The son was named John Ames (“Jack”) Boughton after the narrator. The narrator baptised the Jack Boughton, the son of his best friend, and did not know until the baptism that the parents had decided to name the child after him. He didn’t like it.  Throughout the book the author drops hints that Jack Boughton is untrustworthy and deceitful, and we know that Jack Boughton has left home in some sort of disgrace.

Eventually (p.257) we learn that Jack Boughton has a coloured de-facto wife (named Della) and a child in Tennessee, where marriage between blacks and whites is illegal. The wife was a school teacher. The woman’s father does not approve of the relationship, and Jack’s own father doesn’t know of it.

The author is clever in the way she drops references to Jack Boughton’s character through the book.

Jack Boughton talks about going to tent revival meetings because there is no alcohol there (implying that he is an alcoholic) and he refers to working as a shoe salesman, saying  “there’s very little money in it, but you don’t get arrested for it, either.” (p.256).

During this conversation Jack Boughton refers to the narrator’s marriage containing such an age difference.  (I think there is a 20 or 30 year age difference between them but cannot locate  the passage which tells us this.) Consider this passage in which Jack Boughton is telling the narrator about his marriage:

“…’You know a little about being the object of scandal. Unequally yoked and so on. Of course, Della is an educated woman.’ Those were his very words.

Now that was just like him. That meanness. And his remark was not even to the point. And I never felt there was anything the least bit scandalous about my marriage. In her own way, your mother is a woman of great refinement “ (p.262)

Eventually Amis manages to bless jack, and Jack leaves the town, expecting never to come back. (p.276).

I’m surprised that this book managed to hold my attention for as long as it took to finish it. I normally go for fairly tight actioned thrillers, and this is as far away from that genre as it’s possible to get.


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