Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

An aging minister writes a letter to his young son, telling him all he’ll never have the chance to tell him when his son is a man.

“Just now I was listening to a song on the radio, standing there swaying to it a little, I guess, because your mother saw me from the hallway and she said, ‘I could show you how to do that.’ She came and put her arms around me and put her head on my shoulder, and after a while she said, in the gentlest voice you could ever imagine, ‘Why’d you have to be so damn old?'”

Only Marilynne Robinson’s own words are sufficient to communicate the grace and beauty of Gilead, her second novel and Pulitzer Prize winner. The narrator, Reverend John Ames Boughton, is nearing the end of his life and his heart aches with love for his younger wife and their seven-year-old son Robbie. His reflections are inspired by the return of his namesake, John Ames Boughton, the middle-aged scoundrel son of his dearest friend, the Reverend Robert Boughton. Known as Jack, Boughton’s son has squandered his heritage–and yet, in true prodigal fashion, Ames knows that he is the one of Boughton’s many children who is closest to his heart.

Ames’s recollection meander through memoir, apologia, philosophy and confession. Robinson’s prose isn’t showy, but she finds new ways to express the startling beauty of the ordinary. This is my second time reading Gilead and I found so much more in it the second time around. It’s about as deeply Christian a work of fiction as anything I’ve ever read, and Robinson surpasses even Walker Percy in the way she discovers the sacramental in the quotidian.

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