TPR Challenge #1 - Marilynne Robinson and Gilead

It has been weeks since I finished this book.  Why have I let it languish so long without formally commenting on it?  I have not completely neglected it; I've just been doing the face-to-face gushing about it to friends kind of commenting instead.

For some time now, I've had as a major criteria for my full enjoyment of a book to be that it changes me in some way.  It doesn't have to be a seismic shift, but it needs to ask something of me and simultaneously give something to me that lingers.  This is one of those books, and I'm so glad I gave Marilynne Robinson another chance.

Another chance?  That's right.  My first encounter with Robinson was not as pleasant an experience.  Here is an actual quote from my reading journal (a wrinkled-page little book where I actually used a pen to record my thoughts.  How quaint!):  I can't say I enjoyed this book at all.  The story was odd and slightly inconsistent, and the vocabulary she used was strange.  It's as if she chose words and even phrasings to AVOID clarity.

I was responding to Housekeeping, Robinson's first novel, and I was at the time a new mom again and dealing with all that comes with having a two-year-old and a four-month-old making claims upon your being.  So, perhaps it was just bad timing on my part.  That has definitely happened to me before, but I usually abandon the book before forming a full opinion of it.  For instance, about a month before diving into Housekeeping, I also tried Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel.  I know I will appreciate it when I get to it, but 2 am feedings are just not the time to grapple with Diamond.

But I digress.  Terrifically, in fact.  The Paris Review Interviews Volume IV concludes with Marilynne Robinson, and I chose Gilead to tackle first.  Gilead is the fascinating first-person narration (introspective narrative?) provided by Reverend John Ames in the form of an extended letter or journal to his young son.  Ames is much older and knows he is dying, so he wants to leave his son with some of the stories, lessons, and general musings that he might have provided more organically had he lived to just experience life with his son.  Ames' voice is true and strong and consistent (even when you get the sense of Robinson working something out, it sings), and you easily begin to anticipate what piece of history or general illumination Ames will provide next.  It is brilliant and everything I like a novel to be: thought-provoking, intellectual, engaging, and ultimately human.

I believe my favorite part - the part where I just got all slack-jawed at both the thought and the writing that went into it - is when Ames is elucidating his views on the Ten Commandments.  The explanation goes on for pages and is occasionally interrupted by other bits of personal story or narration relevant to the current events in Ames' life.  The particular focus he pays is on the Fifth Commandment - to honor your father and your mother - but his explanation of the division of the tablets and the beautiful progression the commandments make was such a treasure to me.  It took the all-too-familiar text and made it so new and engaging; it changed me and the way I consider these most ancient of laws.  I see them now - all - as instructing on the right worship and understanding of God, and to have such a clarity provided from a novel instead of a theoretical or spiritual treatise is unique.  Here is one of the (MANY) passages I underlined in this section:

There's a pattern in these Commandments of setting things apart so that their holiness will be perceived.  Every day is holy, but the Sabbath is set apart so that the holiness of time can be experienced.  Every human being is worthy of honor, but the conscious discipline of honor is learned from this setting apart of the mother and the father, who usually labor and are heavy-laden, and may be cranky or stingy or ignorant or overbearing.  Believe me, I know this can be a hard Commandment to keep.  But I believe also that the rewards of obedience are great, because at the root of real honor is always the sense of the sacredness of the person who is its object.  In the particular instance of your mother, I know that if you are attentive to her in this way, you will find a great loveliness in her.  When you love someone to the degree you love her, you see her as God sees her, and that is an instruction in the nature of God and humankind and of Being itself. (139)

I hope I will forever keep learning from that lesson.  Amazing.

And of course, as I've flipped through, I've found scads and heaps of other good words to throw your way, but I will not do that here.  Instead, I will just encourage you to read the book if you haven't.  And if you have, aren't you glad you did?  Or did you have a different experience from mine?  Feel free to join the discussion here.

As for the interview itself, it too was enlightening.  There were several bits I thought would be useful in my writing classes, so I'm going to start a log of those gems as I read these interviews and develop some teaching tool out of it.  In particular, I think it so important for students to hear this:

Interviewer: Does writing come easily to you?
Robinson: The difficulty of it cannot be overstated. (456)

So many of my kids think writing just comes "easily" to other people; they do not believe it is a craft that must be constantly reengaged and practiced every day of one's life.  Even when we come to the end of our days, we will produce writing that could be improved.  We just have to be willing to try to improve it.

The part of the interview that resonates most fully with Gilead is this thoughtful evaluation of the human condition:

The ancients are right: the dear old human experience is a singular, difficult, shadowed, brilliant experience that does not resolve into being comfortable in the world.  The valley of the shadow is part of that, and you are depriving yourself if you do not experience what humankind has experienced, including doubt and sorrow.  We experience pain and difficulty as failure instead of saying, I will pass through this, everyone I have ever admired has passed through this, music has come out of this, literature has come of it.  We should think of our humanity as a privilege. (460)

I think I shall leave you with that.  And one final exhortation: read. this. book.  And then, when you are finished, you can read Home, which is based on some of the characters in Gilead.  It is not a sequel, so you can read it first, but I'm glad to have known John Ames first.  I hope I'll be as glad to know his friends a little later.


  1. I have read Gilead twice in the past few years - once before seminary and once during. Both times I found it beautiful and moving and, like you, I've recommended it to practically everyone. Her facility with Biblical metaphors is astounding, especially the title metaphor (Gilead is part of the region across the Jordan where the Israelites paused before crossing into the Promised Land), which so perfectly summarizes the poignancy of this novel. I plan to get my hands on a paperback copy, mark the heck out of it, and quote it in sermons for years to come.

  2. YES, I loved this book also. Which surprises some of my friends, because I'm pretty much a-religious, but the perfection of Ames's voice and the solidity of the life he's lived and the relationships he's forged...it's amazingly beautiful. And I underlined that exact same passage from her Paris Review interview. :-)

  3. Rebecca - Thanks for your contribution here. I hadn't even taken the time to uncover some of those gems. I was just soaking in the obvious and tangible. A second reading will definitely be in order at some point down the road.

    Emily - It doesn't surprise me that you loved this book, but then again, I only know your reading personality. Have you read Home? I'm looking forward to it whenever that time comes.

  4. I just found the site "What is Stephen Harper Reading" created and maintained by Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi. His comments on Gilead are so amazing. Check it out!


  5. You might like John Wooden's 2001 Ted Talk - he makes several references to his father's influence on his life.

  6. Ruth - Thanks for the link and the comment. I do love TED Talks - one of my favorite escapes! I'll definitely have to watch John Wooden's talk, a sure hit in this basketball house.