Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 2005. And although it didn’t make it into Spark Notes, you will be pleased to learn that a couple of other Cliff/Spark Notes type organizations have summarized and analyzed it neatly for you so that you don’t have to actually read it. I hate it when that happens. It makes lazy intellectuals of us all, snatching from us the need/opportunity to stretch our minds a bit with a book that isn’t about zombies, vampires, murders, or strange alternate histories.
Gilead refers to Gilead, Iowa, on the edge of the Great Plains, a stone’s throw from Kansas. The book is in the form of a letter written by Gilead’s elderly preacher of 77 (damn! that’s elderly? Not by my woman-of -a- certain-age lights.) He lost his first wife in the birth of their first child, who also died shortly after. He had then remained single until falling in love at age 67 with a much younger woman, marrying her and conceiving a son with her. The son is 7 years old when he begins his letter. He is suffering a severe heart condition, and is afraid he will not be around to tell his son all the things that fathers share with their sons, so has an eye for putting it in writing, day by day as he thinks of things.
He comes from a line of preachers, his grandfather being a fiery individual who fought in the civil war, where he lost an eye, making him quite a fearsome character. In his later years, he went back to Kansas, and died there, and when our narrator was a boy of ten, his preacher father took him on a journey into Kansas to find the grave of the old man.
Although at first glance the letter/book seems simply to be the ramblings of an old and ailing man, it is rather hypnotic and addictive, and little by little, stories of the people in his life begin to emerge, and by the end, we feel we know them all quite well.
He talks about his faith, his doubts about his faith, his struggles and his failings, and we are thoroughly endeared to him.
I can give you the full plot, as it were, but I am not going to. Read the book. It is well worth it. Or look it up on Wiki or one of those Notes sites. But read it. You will be the better for it. Here’s a few quotes for you to ponder:
But I’ve developed a great reputation for wisdom by ordering more books than I ever had time to read, and reading more books, by far, than I learned anything useful from, except, of course, that some very tedious gentlemen have written books.
Null. That word has real power.
I believe the old reverend’s errors [the grandfather’s] were mainly the consequence of a sort of strenuousness in ethical matters that was to be admired finally. The waters never parted for him, not once in his life, so far as I know. There was just no end to difficulty, and no mitigation of it.
When I was a child I actually believed that the purpose of steeples was to attract lightning. I learned that the people of Maine use to put those roosters [weather vanes] on their steeples to remind themselves of the betrayal of Peter, to help them repent.
And he, [again, speaking of his father’s father] reverend gentleman that he was, had something about him that bespoke grudge. I have always liked the phrase “nursing a grudge”, because many people are tender of their resentments, as of the thing nearest their hearts.
And of his dear friend, also a preacher, also elderly and unwell, and his ideas on heaven:
Mainly I just think about the splendors of the world and multiply by two. I’d multiply by ten or twelve if I had the energy. But two is much more than sufficient for my purposes.”
Remembering and forgiving can be contrary things.
It is worth living long enough to outlast whatever sense of grievance you may acquire.
Marilynne Robinson is also the author of Housekeeping, which if you haven’t read the book you might remember from the movie starring Christine Lahti. That book was also nominated for a Pulitzer.