Book Review: Gilead

Gilead, a 2004 novel by Marilynne Robinson, is a quiet meditation on leading a moral life. The narrator is a 77 year old pastor, still preaching to a waning congregation in his dilapidated church in the small town of Gilead, Iowa, speaking to the 7 year old son he will never see grow up, hoping to share a reflective life. My sister in law Jeannie recommended the book to me; she said she’d found it profoundly moving and thought I might too. If you know Kent Haruf’s work, the quietness of Marilynne Robinson’s novel will remind you of that.

By happenstance I was reading Gilead just as the college admissions cheating scandal broke out, just as young Miss Olivia Jade Giannulli, a beneficiary of the scam, was on YouTube pronouncing herself uninterested in her USC education, just in the tailgating and parties and lucrative social media opportunities that are now hers as an “influencer”. College students haven’t lived long enough to have complex moral lives, but the particular vacuousness of this young woman is breathtaking.

Gilead made me think of Ana, Minga’s daughter. Ana is in her mid-60’s. She’s raised five children to adulthood. She and Raul have had their fifteen year old granddaughter Miley since infancy, raising her too. And for the last year of Minga’s life, Ana devoted herself to her mother’s care, getting up at 3am three days a week to launch her household into the day before getting Minga to dialysis on the bus well in advance of the sun coming up. Last November I asked Ana how long she could do this exhausting and emotionally draining schedule, and she said without a shred of self-pity or complaint “As long as my mother needs me.”

Ana and the narrator of Gilead share much in common: they lead richly moral lives in quiet, out of the way places with recognition from no one and little by way of financial reward.

One of the reviews of Gilead suggested that you need the underpinning of an observant Christian life to really understand the book. I don’t think so. I found the book a little slow to start, but then I got into the rhythm of it. This is the rhythm of my Iowa grandparents and aunts and uncles who gathered on the farm for Sunday dinner after church. Nothing much happened, after the hard physical labor of the week. Sunday was the day to rest, to be present, to share a meal, to honor each other’s good and decent lives.

I wish Olivia Jade could get off the USC trustee’s yacht in the Bahamas and into a book like Gilead, which they might even teach in an English Lit class at the university, were she to bother attending.

Gilead isn’t a new book, but it’s available on Kindle. Highly recommend.

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