GILEAD Marilynne Robinson
Usually, I would not read Gilead, a preacher telling his family’s story. It is draped in religion and is set in a small Iowa community. But I read it, and learned something from the telling.
There are no chapters and only two sections. There are a few hundred incidences. The telling of this story is in the form of an oral history. If a parent or grandparent were telling the story of the family, Gilead represents how that elder might tell: Incident here, reminder of that, this doesn’t necessarily follow but is interesting, the next thing, where was I in the story? Gilead is not chronological, but the telling is pleasing because the reader goes from incidents to more incidents, gaining insights along the way along with some learning.
The telling is by an educated man and the story stays close to that character’s roots – religion. If there be a drawback, the doses of religion and faith, undoubtedly supporting the story with biblical passages, whether noted or not, provide a foundation for the story. There is the family – the audience for this testament – the community and church members. Few names are given, as though confidences are kept. Instead, the setting and way of life imparts the demands, life’s work and worth, on the preacher-narrator. In many ways Gilead is about the preacher’s hope that future generations will learn, will hear his confession and will realize his shortcomings, all a reconciliation and realization he never had with his father. In some ways religion can seem repetitive, but in the style of oral history, some repetition should be expected.
I noted I would not usually read a book like Gilead. In my life I’ve read some primary sources. The Confessions of St. Augustine are overpowering. I’ve read some primary sources, and a lot of history about the development of Christianity and its sects, and some primary sources and sermons in those sects. [Waiting on the bookshelf to read it is Harnack, The History of Dogma, about the rise of Christianity.] Gilead has a historical component of telling the lives of its characters in the Mid-west, after the Civil War to the mid-1950s. Inside are few historical events to date anything. Again true to the character, the author sticks to religion. There are important events of faith, of his life and his family, but they have no time.
The fact that incidences and stories happened and will happen again without reference to time, makes Gilead eternal.