Marilynne Robinson's many Northwest fans had to wait 23 years for her second novel. According to The New York Times, among others, it was worth it — Robinson's "Gilead,"...
Marilynne Robinson’s many Northwest fans had to wait 23 years for her second novel. According to The New York Times, among others, it was worth it — Robinson’s “Gilead,” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 247 pp., $23), was just named one of the 10 best books published in 2004.
Robinson’s quiet tale of a small-town Iowa minister’s struggles with faith, family and history joined a lineup that includes literary star Philip Roth (“The Plot Against America”), and Booker Prize winner Colm Toibin (“The Master.”)
Readers who prized Robinson’s first novel, “Housekeeping,” weren’t surprised. “Housekeeping,” the story of two sisters and their struggle for identity and survival in Idaho (Robinson grew up in Sandpoint), was cited by author Nicholas O’Connell in his recent survey of regional writing, “On Sacred Ground,” as a seminal work of contemporary Northwest literature: “Few novels of any era capture the mysterious character of the inland Northwest as completely as Marilynne Robinson’s 1981 novel ‘Housekeeping,’ ” O’Connell wrote.
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Robinson, now 61, earned her doctorate at the University of Washington, and returns to Seattle Friday for a rare reading. She teaches now at the University of Iowa’s writing program and talked by phone recently from her home in Iowa City about the influences that shaped “Gilead.”
“Gilead” has some things in common with “Housekeeping” — it’s set in a small town, and dwells on both family and regional history. Like Robinson’s volumes of essays (“The Death of Adam” and “Mother Country”), it is a literary work illuminated by a strong moral and spiritual world view.
“Gilead” is presented as the written testament of a Congregational preacher in a small Iowa town. It’s 1956; John Ames is 76 and knows he is dying of heart disease. He married and had a son late in life; the novel is a lengthy letter to his 6-year-old son, whom Ames knows he will never see grow up.
Ames is a powerful character whose words require careful reading. “Gilead” is not a bedtime-snack sort of book. He’s modeled on a voice that inhabited Robinson’s head, the author says.
“The voice that came to my mind was an old man talking to a young child,” she said. “The pitch of the voice, the angle of vision — that was the original conception of the novel.”
Though Ames is fictional, the town of Gilead is modeled on the small Iowa town of Tabor, an Iowa outpost near the Missouri border that had become a staging ground for the forays of anti-slavery fighter John Brown. In Ames’ retelling of the 19th-century abolitionist history of Gilead, townspeople dig tunnels and make hideaways for escaping slaves. And John Ames’ grandfather, a fiery abolitionist and minister who moved west from Maine to fight for the Union, goes farther, hiding Brown and his men in his church from pursuers, bloodying his own shirt in an act of violence.
The history of the abolitionist movement fascinates Robinson.
“Iowa was largely settled by abolitionists from New England,” she says. “Instead of just expediting the movement of fugitives, they would go and take people out of Missouri … [Ulysses] Grant called Iowa ‘the shining star of radicalism’ … Tabor had a Congregational minister who supplied weapons for John Brown.” In “Gilead,” a similar act alienates Ames’ grandfather from his son (the narrator’s father, also a minister).
Ames wrestles with the morality of violence in the reasoned and tormented voice of a spiritual man who knows his time on earth is limited. Robinson spent years reading and rereading the works of 19th-century ministers and philosophers to develop Ames’ theological point of view. “What I’ve done for years now is read people significant in the 19th century and see who they mention, and read those people and see who they mention,” she says.
Though 19th-century history is a big part of “Gilead,” race still haunts the small town in the 1950s. One of the questions driving Ames’ narrative is why a fiery center of abolitionism became, after the Civil War, a place where blacks were driven out of town by a fire deliberately set at the “Negro” church.
Ames’ grandfather becomes the town’s “crazy man,” who will give away the shirt on his back, but his nature reflects his despair, Robinson says: “The character of the grandfather lived to see the beginning of Jim Crow, of things sliding away. The degree of his eccentricity reflects his disappointment as much as it does his radicalism.”
“Gilead” wades in the currents of history, but it’s ultimately a testament to the power of love and forgiveness, as Ames confronts his past and present with a man who serves as a sort of prodigal son.
The novel reflects the spiritual commitment of Robinson, an active Congregationalist in Iowa City. And it is the final product of years of investment in study and research: A joke going around Iowa City suggested that Robinson even read while she walked her dog.
“I did do that for a long time,” she says, laughing, “before I realized that people were watching.”
Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or firstname.lastname@example.org