Former President Obama while campaigning in Iowa long ago, read Gilead and admired it.
As the story goes, he had time while riding from one Iowa town to another, to read Marilynne Robinson's 2005 Pulitzer prize-winning novel. Years later there would be that long meeting between the President and Robinson, with their interview featured in two issues of The New York Review of Books. I like to imagine that as the literate and verbally gifted Obama passed Iowa's wintry cornfields in late 2007 and early 2008, he paused at length over this line from Gilead.
History could make a stone weep.
Yet it is personal history that the novel's narrator, Reverend John Ames, wants his son to know. Ames has been told that his heart could give out at any time, which is why he sits down at age 76 and begins a letter to his seven-year-old son with these words: "I told you last night that I might be gone sometime." The setting for this novel is the early 1950s, in the small Iowa town of Gilead, where Ames is the third John Ames in his family to serve the Congregational church as its Reverend.
I stopped just now, on this rainy Monday morning, to listen to Nina Simone sing an old Negro spiritual: "There is a balm in Gilead." You can hear it on the internet. In the Old Testament, in Jeremiah 8:22, a question is posed: "Is there no balm in Gilead?" The spiritual answers with these words: "There is a balm in Gilead/ to make the wounded whole/there is a balm in Gilead/ to heal the sin-sick soul." That you might say is the essence of this epistolary novel, the first of a trilogy. The wound concerns John Ames Boughton, the Reverend's namesake, who returns to Gilead after a long absence. He will be the main character in Home, the next novel, followed by Lila. She is the Reverend's young wife and the mother of his only child. The trilogy, however, is now a quartet, with the recent publication months ago of a fourth novel, Jack.
But here is the rub, to borrow a phrase from Shakespeare! In the winter of 2005, after my discovery of Robinson's first novel, Housekeeping, I bought Gilead as soon as it came out. Then I told every reader I knew about it. My experience replicated a writer's whose name I will not use. She had read Gilead on a long flight, then opened it to the first page, and read the novel again. Once the plane landed, she sent e-mail to her large audience of friends and readers. Her message? Gilead was brilliant and had to be read. But there was little response from her audience. Her husband, a literary critic, said, "The novel is not everyone's cup of tea."
Yesterday, Sunday December 13th, I read the novel for the seventh or eighth time. And once again at novel's end, the scene between John Ames and his namesake moved me to tears. If you have not read the novel lately (or have never read it), I would suggest a large mug of fine tea one winter's afternoon with Gilead as your companion. You will hear a soothing, intelligent voice, so unlike 'the troubling cacophony and relentless noise of our political, pandemic times’…
Next week: The continuing mystery of Jack in Home.