When I started reading Marilynne Robinson's Pulitzer Prize winning Gilead (2004), I was shocked to find actual grown-up reflections and meditations on parenting, pastoring, place (Iowa, for crying out loud!), faith, doubt, forgiveness, death and even a bit of the afterlife.
What a relief! And what an unbelievably wonderful job Ms. Robinson does channeling these themes through an old, dying Congregationalist minister by way of a letter he is writing his 7-year-old son. How sweet the sound of a wise old man composing a life review in which he delivers, in no great haste and in a seemingly discursive manner, so many compelling revelations, reflections and speculations.
The book's achievements far outweigh my abilities as a commentator, so I'll give you a few jacket-blurb-style observations, then direct you to a more thoughtful and refined review by my friend Randy Greenwald:
Robinson's style is clear, simple, direct, belying the profundity and incisiveness of her content.
I cannot recall a novel that reflects more thoroughly on the mystery of forgiveness and its connection to memory. Robinson treats this topic through an updating of the Prodigal Son story, but with a twist. You'll see.
Those who fear proselytizing can relax. Her novel is about a minister, so he says and thinks things that ministers say and think. I sensed no intention on Ms. Robinson's part to lure me into Congregationalism or Presbyterianism or any other -ism. If I had, I would've set the book down immediately. Also, see Greenwald's take on this topic below.
Robinson celebrates the beauty of life, a father's love, a father's forgiveness, a minister's faith and loyalty -- all of this without a single maudlin syllable, nor a breath of sentimentality.
The novel reminds me of how much I appreciate all art that takes human life seriously, and takes our planet seriously, too, and frequently reminds us that it continues to glow, for all the damage we've done to it.
The old minister's words (combined with the sheriff in Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men) made me wish we would listen more often, carefully but critically, to old people (I'd settle for grown-ups. Where'd they go?). It's not just the ones in books that could keep us from making utter fools of ourselves. They've seen it all. We're shortsighted not to listen to them.
Gilead, and the small handful of other books like it, highlights with each page the tawdriness, shallowness and sensationalism of network news and most pop culture. It helps me remember that while the doomsday messages crawl across the bottom of the screen on Good Morning America, my body is busy performing miracles to keep me alive, and all of nature is putting on a show to give my heart one more reason to keep on beating.
Great literature is written to be reread. I'll reread Gilead soon, as well as Robinson's other books about that community, Home and Lila. Until then, if you'll excuse me, I'd like to give her a standing ovation in the privacy of the study I share with my wife and four animals. I have no more words except, "How did she do it? How did she think of those things she has the minister say? How did she turn them into a novel? How did she convince her publisher that such a thing would sell, let alone win the Pulitzer Prize?"
Well, I leave you with the bafflement so often created by beauty. But before you go, you might enjoy hearing Tim O'Brien read a much shorter letter to his young son (you can start the video at about 7:35 if you're pressed for time), then you must read my friend Randy Greenwald's thoughtful commentary on Gilead.