Gilead

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I came to this work via National Review's list of Ten Great Conservative Novels. Not that the book is without other plaudits: it won a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Critics Circle award for fiction, and probably some others out there too. And (it turns out) even Barack Obama is a huge fan of the author, Marilynne Robinson.

As it turns out, all the praise is justified. Uncomfortable as I am with agreeing with the ex-President.

The setup is not especially promising since my fiction tastes (you may have noticed) tend to run to crime thrillers and hard science fiction. The book is narrated by John Ames, a Congregational pastor in the small southwest Iowa town of Gilead; the setting is the mid-1950s. John has heart trouble that everyone knows will kill him soon, and he's decided to write a mini-memoir to his (then) seven-year-old son, in hopes that it will be read some decades in the future.

What develops is a series of revelations about John's Christian faith, and how that faith was manifested in his (pacifist) father and his (fierce abolitionist) grandfather. Recollections of his first wife and child, long dead, and the loneliness that resulted. The surprising blessing of his current wife and son. And his Presbyterian-minister best friend, Boughton, and his family.

That last relationship turns the memoir into something else, when Boughton's son, Jack, turns up in town after a long absence. Jack is a severe test to John's ideas of how a Christian should behave toward sinners.

I think I can safely say that after reading this book, you'll get to know more about John Ames than you might know about even your closest acquaintances. You might wind up knowing John better than you know yourself.

One personal note: one scene in the book mentions wading in the West Nishnabotna River. Whoa: that was the river that ran through the town where I lived as a young 'un, Oakland Iowa. This sent me to research, and it turns out Ms Robinson based fictional Gilead on Tabor Iowa, just down the road from Oakland, 40 miles or so. Funny!