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Gilead (Oprah's Book Club)

A Novel

Marilynne Robinson


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ISBN10: 1250784018
ISBN13: 9781250784018

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256 Pages


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Winner of the Pulitzer Prize
Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award
Named One of the Ten Best Books by The New York Times Book Review
A New York Times Notable Book
A Chicago Tribune Best Book
Short-listed for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing

An American Library Association Notable Book of the Year

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 Iowa 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.


Praise for Gilead (Oprah's Book Club)

"[Gilead] has a note of the miraculous."—Joan Acocella, The New York Review of Books

"A beautiful work—demanding, grave, and lucid . . . Nowadays, when so many writers are acclaimed as great stylists, it's hard to make anyone notice when you praise a writer's prose. There is, however, something remarkable about the writing in Gilead. It's not just a matter of writing well, although Robinson demonstrates that talent on every page . . . It isn't just the care with which Robinson can relax the style to a Midwestern colloquialism . . . [It's that] Robinson's words have a spiritual force that's very rare in contemporary fiction [and] as the novel progresses, its language becomes sparer, lovelier."—James Wood, The New York Times Book Review

"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. There's nothing flashy in these pages, and yet one regularly pauses to reread sentences, sometimes for their beauty, sometimes for their truth . . . Eventually one realizes that beyond a portrait of the human condition—prey to isolation and loneliness, ever needful of faith and love—Robinson has subtly introduced that great heartbreaking theme of American history, the often divisive, unfulfilled quest for social and racial justice . . . Immensely moving . . . [A] triumph of tone and imagination."—Michael Dirda, The Washington Post Book World

"Robinson is a miraculous anomaly: a writer who thoughtfully, carefully, and tenaciously explores some of the deepest questions confronting the human species. A consummate artist, a scrupulous scholar, a believing Christian, and a genuinely radical thinker, Robinson approaches whatever she undertakes with the kind of gravitas one seldom encounters today. In place of the buzz-words and half-baked ideas that pass for conventional wisdom, she offers something truly unconventional and certainly much closer to wisdom . . . [Gilead is] a poignant, absorbing, lyrically written novel [and] a wonderfully readable book—moving, compelling, and fascinating in any number of ways . . . Robinson's decision to cast this novel as a letter endows it with a tremendous sense of immediacy and intimacy. Not only do we get to overhear a man in the deeply private process of thinking to himself, we also feel the urgency of his desire to share what he has learned with his son. Like all of Robinson's writing, Gilead is full of passages that beg to be read aloud, complex thoughts and emotions expressed with a felicity as engaging as it is illuminating . . . [This is] thoughtful, luminous writing."—Merle Rubin, Los Angeles Times Book Review

"There is a lot of pleasure to be had in the novel's probing, thoughtful narrative voice—in Ms. Robinson's precise depiction of a religious man's interior life. In some ways, Gilead seems to be an answer to an old literary problem: how to depict a good person in an interesting way."—Matt Murray, The Wall Street Journal

"[The narrator's voice] is original and strong . . . [Gilead] is a beautiful book of ideas."—Mona Simpson, The Atlantic Monthly

"[Gilead] has the holy hush of a work that has been refined to its essence. Robinson's prose pulses with grace and precision, even as it asks questions that keep us up at night . . . Impeccable prose . . . Glows with brilliance . . . The combination of dense thought and uncluttered prose is as rare as it is beautiful."—Maggie Galehouse, The Philadelphia Inquirer

"A literary work illuminated by a strong moral and spiritual world view . . . Ames is a powerful character whose words require careful reading . . . [Gilead is] a testament to the power of love and forgiveness."—Mary Ann Gwinn, The Seattle Times

"Gilead is chock full of rich, complex language, [and it] plunges into intricate philosophical and spiritual introspections. There's also an intriguing plot turn and characters who harbor beguiling histories. One might also point out that it's the little things—the main character's love of baseball and fried-egg sandwiches, for instance—that ground this deeply reflective yet accessible novel . . . Gilead is a refuge for readers longing for that increasingly rare work of fiction, one that explores big ideas while telling a good story."—Olivia Boler, San Francisco Chronicle

"Full of the penetrating intellect and artful prose that made Housekeeping a modern classic . . . A story that captures the splendors and pitfalls of being alive, viewed through the prism of how soon it all ends. The world could use . . . more novels this radiant and wise."—Kathryn Schwille, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"An urgent intervention, an argument for the continued relevance of faith's role in political resistance . . . A brave [and] gripping book . . . Robinson's achievement here is remarkable: Her thought-possessed narrator captivates as a fully realized character, and the novel's worldview does not impose itself but convincingly emerges from the narrator's multivalent voice."—Gregory Miller, The San Diego Union-Tribune

"[This] is that rarest of books. It combines lush language with theological wisdom . . . Robinson has tackled two imposing challenges: She has written an epistolary novel, and her main character is not only a clergyman but a good man. She succeeds remarkably . . . With its exquisite writing and humane sensibility, Gilead is a quiet yet powerful novel."—Gordon Houser, The Wichita Eagle

"Robinson has written a profound study of the Protestant roots of the American soul, a moving story that begins in gentle retrospection and affirmations of family love but quickly turns to questions of moral responsibility and conscience . . . In the sere beauty of its prose and the fierceness of its passion, Gilead is a work of startling power: a seemingly simple artifice that reveals more complex and finer structures the closer we approach it. It is a subtle, gorgeously wrought, and immensely moving novel."—Gregory Feeley, The Weekly Standard

"Gilead is a courageous venture into territory all but abandoned by contemporary fiction: the sustaining power of religious experience, the ethical imperatives of theology, and the blessedness of existence at its most mundane. It recalls us to the mysteriousness of our histories and ourselves."—Stacy Hubbard, Buffalo News

"[This book's] grandeur is grounded in what are essentially religious virtues: humility, awe, and gratitude. Its themes echo the universal claims of faith, family, and fathers and sons. Gilead feels like a classic."—Dan Cryer, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

"Gilead invites us, with a kind of understated ecstasy, to contemplate the mysteries of being in the world. It is a novel that demands of us the same openness to experience and slowness to judge with which it invests its protagonist . . . Gilead is a blessing indeed."—Stacy Carson Hubbard, Michigan Quarterly Review

"Gilead, the absorbing confessions of a pious man, transcends religion to address common secular struggles about maintaining hope and holding fast to an ethical course. At a time when so many politicians aggressively flaunt religiosity in strategic sound bites, it is refreshing to read an honest account of moral and spiritual quandaries . . . Gilead is remarkable for its sensual evocation of place and keen appreciation for history as well as for its candid, often gripping, examination of conscience."—Valerie Miner, The Women's Review of Books

"From Robinson's pen, these pages flow with the intensity of a prayer, both anguished and assured . . . The result is a testimony of struggle and faith over three generations that's more intimate and revealing than most parents can articulate in decades . . . Gilead wanders in that casual way that fellow masters of reflection like Henry David Thoreau or Annie Dillard manage without seeming vagrant . . . There are passages here of such profound, hard-won wisdom and spiritual insight that they make your own life seem richer . . . Gilead [is] a quiet, deep celebration of life that you must not miss."—Ron Charles, The Christian Science Monitor

"Page after page is filled with gravely beautiful writing . . . Marilynne Robinson's Gilead is exceptional in every way. There has not been a work so uncompromisingly devout and different in American literature since Flannery O'Connor's novels and stories. Gilead is a far more explosive and transgressive work than any other book American culture has had to deal with in years. It troubles the waters by placing so much faith in what the mainstream has ignored or mocked: the quietly speaking consciences of those for whom religion is a daily matter of life and death. But it's important to insist that Gilead succeeds on far more than religious or spiritual terms. It starts as a gentle letter written by ailing John Ames to his 7-year-old son to be read when that son is a grown man, but it quickly develops into a complex tale of sin and redemption contemplated from both personal and national perspectives . . . Whatever level it assays, Gilead masters."—Patrick Giles, National Catholic Reporter

"[Gilead's] narrative strikes a fine balance between the exterior and interior worlds of its narrator, its prose both meticulous and sensuous, delighted in its own sounds and cadences . . . Throughout Gilead, Robinson manages that trickiest of fictional aspirations, the portrayal of souls struggling to achieve selflessness. John Ames and his graceful wife and son inhabit this novel with dignity, their story plausible even in its utter goodness. If grace, as John Ames says, is an 'ecstatic fire that takes things down to essentials,' then Gilead, in its deliberate and generous telling, achieves narrative grace."—Valerie Sayers, Commonweal

"Through [the main character of] Ames, Marilynne Robinson reveals the intense, at times unbearable beauty of an ordinary human life . . . It's the triumph of Gilead that the words of an old preacher dying in an obscure Midwestern town can take on the weight they do. No matter the reader's religious impulse, no matter if he doesn't have any, whether Ames will be able to forgive and love his enemy becomes an outcome of critical importance . . . Anatole Broyard's New York Times review of Housekeeping praised Robinson for her 'close, careful fondness for people that we thought only saints felt.' How deeply gratifying it is to find that . . . she hasn't changed a bit."—Kathryn Harrison, Bookforum

"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, listed 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 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, a 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."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"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."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)