I spent most of November in Gilead, the fictional small town in a corner of Iowa, created by Marilynne Robinson in her books Gilead, Home, and Lila. (I haven’t read Home, yet.) The books are gentle and slow, full of kindness, though not without trials. Reading both of them in the same month made me feel like I really got to know Rev John Ames and his wife Lila, and I am the richer for it.
In Gilead, Rev. Ames, knowing that he is dying of a heart condition, writes a letter (part journal, part memoir) to his young son–all the things he wants to tell him that he knows he won’t have time to tell. It’s sad and poignant, but so hopeful too, and full of thanksgiving for the wife and son he never thought he’d have, and for time he did get to enjoy with them. He recalls his family’s history in snatches, weaving together a generational story. The writing is superb–this book won the Pulitzer and I see why. Robinson is so talented in how she seamlessly moves back and forth through time, interspersing it all with reflections on life and faith. The scene where Ames’s father gives him a biscuit in front of the remains of a church–so vivid and meaningful. This is a book to savor.
And then I read Lila. In this book, we go back in time and hear Lila’s story. Neglected as a child, rescued and cared for on the run by a woman named Doll, Lila had a difficult life. When she becomes John Ames’s unlikely wife, she finds herself afraid to trust–him and his love for her, and her safety now, when she had never really been safe before. Their relationship is complicated but marked by kindness and courage in them both. I loved this book.
I read that Gilead was ranked the forth best novel written since 2000, and is the favorite of all time of many. I can see why. In the town of Gilead, in the characters of John Ames, Lila, and the others who make up the town, Marilynne Robinson has created treasures.
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