The novel Gilead written as a memoir of a third generation, now dyeing, Protestant minister to his very young son. The book is the best read that I have had in a long time. The author, Marilynn Robinson, weaves story-telling with theology; humor with pathos; anxiety with certainty; history with timelessness with literary skill and affectionate understanding.
The story-teller, John Ames, traces the founding of the town in which he and his wife and son live back to his abolitionist grandfather who with a group of other abolitionists from New England settled the town in the then Kansas Territory. With compassionate wonder, John describes his one-eyed, gun-slinging, excentric grandfather as a pastor with a mission – to abolish slavery and all forms of segregation. As a man of the clothe, he fought in the Civil War. John’s grandfather’s exploits, sometimes humorous, often conflicted with the wishes of his family. Grandfather’s theology was suspect, but not his heart.
John’s father took up the clothe and became a pacifist. Although he preached in his father’s church, he sometimes visited the Quaker Meeting on a Sunday morning. Nevertheless, he helped his congregation sustain its faith during long period of drought and during the Great Depression.
John writes this history a few years after WWII. He is dyeing and so is the town, Gilead. The trains stopped coming; the grain elevators are empty; his siblings left the town many years before.
Sustained by the writings of Calvin, Barth, and others, John’s faith never wavers. But, his moral fiber is tested by a young man who enters into his family life. The man is John’s godson who has, over the years disappointed John and his own father by his less than morally up-right behavior. John cannot understand the young man’s behavior. He cannot seem to forgive him. Further, John is threatened by the way his son and wife have accepted the young man. John’s historical chronology becomes infused with theological musing on forgiveness.
Ms. Robinson novel is seamless. She infuses all of the above with fresh descriptions and figures of speech that delight the reader. Here is a novel about a moral man, that is full of philosophical and theological musings, that is a great read and that won the Pulitzer Prize without succumbing to the “mustache and walking stick” of modern secularism.