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3.6 110
by Marilynne Robinson

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2005 Pulitzer Prize Winner for Fiction

2004 National Book Critics Circle Winner

In 1956, toward the end of Reverend John Ames's life, he begins a letter to his young son, an account of himself and his forebears. Ames is the son of an Iowan preacher and the grandson of a minister who, as a young man in Maine, saw a vision of Christ bound


2005 Pulitzer Prize Winner for Fiction

2004 National Book Critics Circle Winner

In 1956, toward the end of Reverend John Ames's life, he begins a letter to his young son, an account of himself and his forebears. Ames is the son of an Iowan preacher and the grandson of a minister who, as a young man in Maine, saw a vision of Christ bound in chains and came west to Kansas to fight for abolition: He "preached men into the Civil War," then, at age fifty, became a chaplain in the Union Army, losing his right eye in battle. Reverend Ames writes to his son about the tension between his father—an ardent pacifist—and his grandfather, whose pistol and bloody shirts, concealed in an army blanket, may be relics from the fight between the abolitionists and those settlers who wanted to vote Kansas into the union as a slave state. And he tells a story of the sacred bonds between fathers and sons, which are tested in his tender and strained relationship with his namesake, John Ames Boughton, his best friend's wayward son.

This is also the tale of another remarkable vision—not a corporeal vision of God but the vision of life as a wondrously strange creation. It tells how wisdom was forged in Ames's soul during his solitary life, and how history lives through generations, pervasively present even when betrayed and forgotten.

Gilead is the long-hoped-for second novel by one of our finest writers, a hymn of praise and lamentation to the God-haunted existence that Reverend Ames loves passionately, and from which he will soon part.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Gilead is a beautiful work—demanding, grave and lucid . . . Robinson's words have a spiritual force that's very rare in contemporary fiction." —James Wood, The New York Times Book Review

"Robinson's 1981 debut, Housekeeping, was a perfect novel if ever there was one, and her long-awaited second novel proves just as captivating . . . Robinson's prose is lovely and wonderfully precise . . . Gilead is a gentle journey that will be even better the second time you read it." —Jeremy Jackson, People

"[Gilead] is so serenely beautiful, and written in a prose so gravely measured and thoughtful, that one feels touched with grace just to read it. Gilead possesses the quiet ineluctable perfection of Flaubert's A Simple Heart as well as the moral and emotional complexity of Robert Frost's deepest poetry . . . Immensely moving." —Michael Dirda, The Washington Post Book World

"A major work." —Philip Connors, Newsday

"A beautifully rendered story . . . full of penetrating intellect and artful prose . . . that captures the splendors and pitfalls of being alive . . . The world could use . . . more novels this wise and radiant." —Kathryn Schwille, The Charlotte Observer

"Compelling . . . Brilliant." —Martin Northway, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

"There is a lot of pleasure to be had in the novel's probing, thoughtful narrative voice." —Matt Murray, The Wall Street Journal

"Magnificent . . . A psalm worthy of study, a sermon of the loveliest profundity . . . [A] literary miracle . . . 'A'." —Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly

"A Great American Novel." —Time Out New York

"Robinson's long-awaited second novel is an almost otherwordly book-and reveals Robinson as a somewhat otherwordly figure herself . . . A work of enormous integrity . . . Original and strong . . . A beautiful book of ideas." —Mona Simpson, The Atlantic Monthly

"The mature and thoughtful work of a superb and thoughtful storyteller." -Ellen Emry Heltzel, St. Petersburg Times

"An inspired work from a writer whose sensibility seems steeped in holy fire." —Lisa Shea, Elle

"The wait since 1981 and Housekeeping is over. Robinson returns with a second novel that, however quiet in tone and however delicate of step, will do no less than tell the story of America—and break your heart . . . Robinson has composed, with its cascading perfections of symbols, a novel as big as a nation, as quiet as thought, and moving as prayer. Matchless and towering." —Kirkus, starred review

"The long wait has been worth it . . . Robinson's prose is beautiful, shimmering and precise . . . Destined to become her second classic." —Publishers Weekly, starred review

"Quietly powerful [and] moving." —O, The Oprah Magazine (recommended reading)

Praise for Housekeeping:

"I found myself reading slowly, then more slowly-this is not a novel to be hurried through, for every sentence is a delight." -Doris Lessing

"Housekeeping is a haunting dream of a story told in a language as sharp and clear as light and air and water." -Walker Percy

"The richness and variety and the peculiarity of tone Marilynne Robinson sustains are masterful." -Mary Gordon

"Housekeeping is a resounding achievement." -Chicago Tribune

"Housekeeping brilliantly portrays the impermanence of all things." -Time

"Stunningly moving . . . Dazzling." -People

Publishers Weekly
Fans of Robinson's acclaimed debut Housekeeping (1981) will find that the long wait has been worth it. From the first page of her second novel, the voice of Rev. John Ames mesmerizes with his account of his life-and that of his father and grandfather. Ames is 77 years old in 1956, in failing health, with a much younger wife and six-year-old son; as a preacher in the small Iowa town where he spent his entire life, he has produced volumes and volumes of sermons and prayers, "[t]rying to say what was true." But it is in this mesmerizing account-in the form of a letter to his young son, who he imagines reading it when he is grown-that his meditations on creation and existence are fully illumined. Ames details the often harsh conditions of perishing Midwestern prairie towns, the Spanish influenza and two world wars. He relates the death of his first wife and child, and his long years alone attempting to live up to the legacy of his fiery grandfather, a man who saw visions of Christ and became a controversial figure in the Kansas abolitionist movement, and his own father's embittered pacifism. During the course of Ames's writing, he is confronted with one of his most difficult and long-simmering crises of personal resentment when John Ames Boughton (his namesake and son of his best friend) returns to his hometown, trailing with him the actions of a callous past and precarious future. In attempting to find a way to comprehend and forgive, Ames finds that he must face a final comprehension of self-as well as the worth of his life's reflections. Robinson's prose is beautiful, shimmering and precise; the revelations are subtle but never muted when they come, and the careful telling carries the breath of suspense. There is no simple redemption here; despite the meditations on faith, even readers with no religious inclinations will be captivated. Many writers try to capture life's universals of strength, struggle, joy and forgiveness-but Robinson truly succeeds in what is destined to become her second classic. Agent, Ellen Levine. 5-city author tour. (Nov.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
As his life winds down, Rev. John Ames relates the story of his own father and grandfather, both preachers but one a pacifist and one a gun-toting abolitionist. Amazingly, just Robinson's second novel. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The wait since 1981 and Housekeeping is over. Robinson returns with a second novel that, however quiet in tone and however delicate of step, will do no less than tell the story of America-and break your heart. A reverend in tiny Gilead, Iowa, John Ames is 74, and his life is at its best-and at its end. Half a century ago, Ames's first wife died in childbirth, followed by her new baby daughter, and Ames, seemingly destined to live alone, devoted himself to his town, church, and people-until the Pentecost Sunday when a young stranger named Lila walked into the church out of the rain and, from in back, listened to Ames's sermon, then returned each Sunday after. The two married-Ames was 67-had a son, and life began all over again. But not for long. In the novel's present (mid-1950s), Ames is suffering from the heart trouble that will soon bring his death. And so he embarks upon the writing of a long diary, or daily letter-the pages of Gilead-addressed to his seven-year-old son so he can read it when he's grown and know not only about his absent father but his own history, family, and heritage. And what a letter it is! Not only is John Ames the most kind, observant, sensitive, and companionable of men to spend time with, but his story reaches back to his patriarchal Civil War great-grandfather, fiery preacher and abolitionist; comes up to his grandfather, also a reverend and in the War; to his father; and to his own life, spent in his father's church. This long story of daily life in deep Middle America-addressed to an unknown and doubting future-is never in the slightest way parochial or small, but instead it evokes on the pulse the richest imaginable identifying truths of what America was.Robinson has composed, with its cascading perfections of symbols, a novel as big as a nation, as quiet as thought, and moving as prayer. Matchless and towering. Agency: Trident Media Group

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Gilead Series , #1
Product dimensions:
5.70(w) x 8.52(h) x 1.15(d)

Read an Excerpt

Excerpt from Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Copyright © 2004 by Marilynne Robinson. Published in November, 2004 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

I TOLD YOU LAST NIGHT THAT I MIGHT BE GONE sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I'm old, and you said, I don't think you're old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren't very old, as if that settled it. I told you you might have a very different life from mine, and from the life you've had with me and that would be a wonderful thing, there are many ways to live a good life. And you said, Mama already told me that. And then you said, Don't laugh! because you thought I was laughing at you. You reached up and put your fingers on my lips and gave me that look I never in my life saw on any other face besides your mother's. It's a kind of furious pride, very passionate and stern. I'm always a little surprised to find my eyebrows unsinged after I've suffered one of those looks. I will miss them.

It seems ridiculous to suppose the dead miss anything. If you're a grown man when you read this—it is my intention for this letter that you will read it then—I'll have been gone a long time. I'll know most of what there is to know about being dead, but I'll probably keep it to myself. That seems to be the way of things.

I don't know how many times people have asked me what death is like, sometimes when they were only an hour or two from finding out for themselves. Even when I was a very young man, people as old as I am now would ask me, hold on to my hands and look into my eyes with their old milky eyes, as if they knew I knew and they were going to make me tell them. I used to say it was like going home. We have no home in this world, I used to say, and then I'd walk back up the road to this old place and make myself a pot of coffee and a friend-egg sandwich and listen to the radio, when I got one, in the dark as often as not. Do you remember this house? I think you must, a little. I grew up in parsonages. I've lived in this one most of my life, and I've visited in a good many others, because my father's friends and most of our relatives also lived in parsonages. And when I thought about it in those days, which wasn't too often, I thought this was the worst of them all, the draftiest and the dreariest. Well, that was my state of mind at the time. It's a perfectly good old house, but I was all alone in it then. And that made it seem strange to me. I didn't feel very much at home in the world, that was a face. Now I do.

And now they say my heart is failing. The doctor used the term "angina pectoris," which has a theological sound, like misericordia. Well, you expect these things at my age. My father died an old man, but his sisters didn't live very long, really. So I can only be grateful. I do regret that I have almost nothing to leave you and your mother. A few old books no one else would want. I never made any money to speak of, and I never paid any attention to the money I had. It was the furthest thing from my mind that I'd be leaving a wife and child, believe me. I'd have been a better father if I'd known. I'd have set something by for you.

That is the main thing I want to tell you, that I regret very deeply the hard times I know you and your mother must have gone through, with no real help from me at all, except my prayers, and I pray all the time. I did while I lived, and I do now, too, if that is how things are in the next life.

I can hear you talking with your mother, you asking, she answering. It's not the words I hear, just the sounds of your voices. You don't like to go to sleep, and every night she has to sort of talk you into it all over again. I never hear her sing except at night, from the next room, when she's coaxing you to sleep. And then I can't make out what song it is she's singing. Her voice is very low. It sounds beautiful to me, but she laughs when I say that.

I really can't tell what's beautiful anymore. I passed two young fellows on the street the other day. I know who they are, they work at the garage. They're not churchgoing, either one of them, just decent rascally young fellows who have to be joking all the time, and there they were, propped against the garage wall in the sunshine, lighting up their cigarettes. They're always so black with grease and so strong with gasoline I don't know why they don't catch fire themselves. They were passing remarks back and forth the way they do and laughing that wicked way they have. And it seemed beautiful to me. It is an amazing thing to watch people laugh, the way it sort of takes them over. Sometimes they really do struggle with it. I see that in church often enough. So I wonder what it is and where it comes from, and I wonder what it expends out of your system, so that you have to do it till you're done, like crying in a way, I suppose, except that laughter is much more easily spent.

When hey saw me coming, of course the joking stopped, but I could see they were still laughing to themselves, thinking what the old preacher almost heard the say.

I felt like telling them, I appreciate a joke as much as anybody. There have been many occasions in my life when I have wanted to say that. But it's not a thing people are willing to accept. They want you to be a little bit apart. I felt like saying, I'm a dying man, and I won't have so many more occasions to laugh, in this world at least. But that would just make them serious and polite, I suppose. I'm keeping my condition a secret as long as I can. For a dying man I feel pretty good, and that is a blessing. Of course your mother knows about it. She said if I feel good, maybe the doctor is wrong. But at my age there's a limit to how wrong he can be.

That's the strangest thing about this life, about being in the ministry. And then sometimes those very same people come into your study and tell you the most remarkable things. There's a lot under the surface of life, everyone knows that. A lot of malice and dread and guilt, and so much loneliness, where you wouldn't really expect a find it, either.

Meet the Author

Marilynne Robinson is the author of the modern classic Housekeeping (FSG, 1981)—winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award—and two books of nonfiction, Mother Country (FSG, 1989) and The Death of Adam. She teaches at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.

Brief Biography

Iowa City, Iowa
Date of Birth:
November 26, 1943
Place of Birth:
Sandpoint, Idaho
B.A., Brown University, 1966

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Gilead 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 110 reviews.
MarcusBrody More than 1 year ago
Marilynne Robinson is at times a beautiful writer, but this novel is not a showcase for her talents. Many other readers have commented on the absence of plot, which in and of itself is not a mortal literary sin. But when enveloped in a series of platitudes that rarely, if ever, manage to transcend the mundane nature of the narrator (a surprisingly self-absorbed Congregationalist preacher named John Ames) it becomes virtually intolerable. It might have worked as a series of loosely-connected meditations, but like the good Rev. Ames himself they remain stubbornly humdrum, almost banal. There's a sense throughout the book that Robinson could not quite figure out what kind of person she wanted Rev. Ames to be - he is, at various turns in the narrative, defiant, judgmental, contrite, and resigned. Alas, these oscillations do not make for a complex character, just an inconsistent one. There are many, many passages where the Rev. Ames's voice (which is otherwise one of the few unifying elements) drops away completely, so that it feels as though you're reading a theological lecture by Robinson herself. And yet there's a surprisingly noncommittal nature to those ruminations - everything boils down to "maybe, maybe not" (at one point Rev. Ames muses that, "My point here is that you never do know the actual nature even of your own experience. Or perhaps it has no fixed and certain nature."). I heard many similar comments over bong hits in college, and they were not more penetrating that Robinson's. I say this all out of a profound sense of disappointment, as Robinson is clearly a gifted writer. And she isn't afraid to delve into history or religion. This effort, unfortunately, comes up short. With more discipline, and a bit of attention to storytelling fundamentals, this might have been a remarkable, even transcendent book. I would not recommend this book, except possibly as an effective sleep balm.
Baochi More than 1 year ago
A few years ago, I bought a used copy of Marilynne Robinson's Gilead because it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2005 and I aim to read most - if not all - Pulitzer Prize Fiction winners through the ages. However, I was in no hurry to read Gilead based on its synopsis. The combination of a seventy-something protagonist, an obscure town setting, and a religious theme just didn't sound like the page-turning story that I confess I'm always looking to read. Eventually, I had the good sense (or dumb luck) to pack Gilead alongside several other books for a solo vacation a couple of years ago. I love when my negative assumptions are completely upended, and the object of my assumption is revealed in beautiful truth. That's exactly what happened with Gilead. What I thought would be a boring novel turned out to be a profoundly transforming one. The story is narrated by minister John Ames, who is seventy-six and dying. As a gift to his seven year-old son, John shares his meditations on life, love, family, friendship and forgiveness. He describes three generations of Ames men, the misunderstandings between them, their love. Whether John is pondering a moment or a lifetime, he is never far from its spiritual significance. Those soulful musings - rather than coming off as preachy or unwelcome or scriptural - are delivered gently, simply. The prose is spare yet arresting and beautiful. Gilead is an experience.and yes, a spiritual one I am grateful for.
JS-in-KS More than 1 year ago
An impatient, cursory reading of this book may not yield its treasures. (Bookwormiam seems to have given such a reading. The pastor most certainly does forgive his wayward namesake. And he proves that he is not too old to see his wrong assumptions and change his mind and heart.) But for those willing to settle in and let the details seep in, there is quiet wisdom and unassuming beauty. One of the few books I've ever read which, as soon as I'd completed it, turned back and began to read it through again.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Gilead's premise is a letter from an elderly father to his young son. A batchelor until he married late in life, and a new father in his 70s, the father writes to his son, in lieu of being present when the son grows up. Robinson gradually reveals the father's deep gratitude for becoming a father and tender love for his son and wife. As a long-time minister, the son and grandson of ministers, the father naturally writes to the boy of faith, his insights into pastoring a small town flock and Christianity. In addition, the plot very slowly unfolds (but it's worth waiting for) detailing the lives of his lifelong friends and neighbors, their family's history, and how the two families have become so intertwined. Be sure and read the companion book, Home.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I usually love pulitzer prize winners. I enjoy reading books where the literary perfection inspires me. Even more, I love reading books where I am left afterwards feeling moved. After I finished this book I felt nothing. However, this book is beautiful in the way it's written, but that wasn't enough for me. I found it boring. I really struggled through it and found I had to force myself to read every page. I hate starting books and not finishing them and the goal of simply getting to the last page is about the only reason I continued reading. There is no plot, no development of characters, and I found myself skeptical of most of the historical references. All around, I just was disappointed with this pulitzer prize winner. I didn't feel it deserved the honor.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have read many books in my lifetime, but rarely have I become so completely immersed in a work of prose that I literally had to take time to breathe. Gilead is one of the best-written, most poignant journeys into the human heart and mind that I have ever read. If it is indeed rare to find a book that leaves a permanent etch upon our minds and lives and changes how we live, then Gilead is the rarest of jewels, multifaceted and deep, and unshakeable in both its permanence and its humanity.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
One of my favoriets
Guest More than 1 year ago
i read this book on a sunny sunday in one go. i couldnt put it down. it reminded me a lot of my own father, an evangelical minister, and his love for me.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Totally not what I expected. It is very captivating and you get involved with the story. It shows and reveals the heart of a father and the love he has for his son. A great story!!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Reveals the complexity of trying to live a Christ-like life daily in a real world. Pam Rivers, Marriage & Family Therapist and Christian for 56 years.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved Lila but this is not interesting.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
nausetsunriseKR More than 1 year ago
I'm not sure what I was expecting. However, this reads like a journal that is written with the intention of being read by someone else. Since it is supposed to be a letter, I guess the reading by someone else isn't surprising. The book is slow. It doesn't tell the whole of any particular story. It is a guy dying and just kind of coming to terms with that. There are a few lines that are great writing. I read this for a book group, and otherwise wouldn't have finished it. And, it doesn't really end, per se.
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Boring, pointless and repetitive
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UntomyLordDavid More than 1 year ago
You will not waste your time reading this book. It's a beautiful and lovely hymn to life from the perspective of a man whose life's work was to proclaim the Lord of Life.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I couldn't tell what this book wanted to be.  It was beautifully written, but spent so much (well, all) of its time in the narrator's head, it became difficult to follow at times.
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kcjones More than 1 year ago
Robinson's Gilead is one of the most beautifully written books I have ever read. One can find a memorable passage on each page. The book is not fast-paced, but it is filled with wisdom and an understanding of the human spirit. As the main character faces his own mortality, he also struggles to understand and be honest about his own shortcomings. This is a story about family, love, forgiveness, and the vast chasms that can occur between fathers and sons. It was a book club selection for our group, and we had a lively discussion about betrayal, predestination, faith, and forgiveness.
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