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A Balm in Gilead

I just finished a book that upon closing it, I felt like it finished me in a sense. A quiet meditative book that reached down and stirred the deep waters in me. It’s Marilynne Robinson’s 2005 Pulitzer prize winner Gilead, given to me by my friend Andrew Peterson.

Gilead is the account of the Reverend John Ames’ life in rural, IA, as told by the character of John Ames himself. At 76, he knows his days are numbered and he sets out to write an account of his life for his 7 year old son – the blessing of his second marriage after losing his first wife and young daughter. He is aware that he won’t be around to teach his young son the values and truths he himself cherishes and has in some cases learned the hard way. He makes a provision for this by writing letters for his son to read when he’s older. But the letters are also a way of saying goodbye to a world, a town, a life that he has loved.

I was first of all amazed that a woman could author a book with such a convincing male voice! There’s never a moment that John Ames voice rings untrue. It’s also remarkable Marilynne Robinson captured the subtlest nuances of the father/son story. Furthermore, I’m not sure what her spirituality is, but she wrote convincingly of a very authentic and deeply rooted faith. I’m hard pressed to think of a more profoundly Christian book than Gilead, but in ways least expected. Mark Twain talks of a “religious man in the worst sense of the word”, and I would call this a religious book in the best sense of the word.

I knew I wanted to write about this book here in the rabbit room, but I couldn’t for the life of me think of what to write and I was afraid I’d fail the book. It’s difficult to pull little quotes from it that are brilliant, because any brilliant quote would end up being three pages long. Entire passages are stunningly beautiful, but all in a quiet and unassuming way. It took me a long time to read the book because I had to savor every page – there was no filler. It’s one of the books that I feel changed me in the reading of it, or at the very least made me more present to my own life. That’s probably the best that I could say about it.

Andrew and I were talking about the book a few weeks ago after I had finished it, and I talked about one of my favorite scenes where John Ames has a dream that his grandfather “stalked out of the trees in that furious way he had, scooped his hat full of water, and threw it, so a sheet of water came sailing toward us, billowing in the air like a veil, and fell down over us. Then he put his hat back on his head and stalked off into the trees again and left us standing there in that glistening river, amazed at ourselves and shining like the apostles. I mention this because it seems to me transformations just that abrupt do occur in this life, and they occur unsought and unawaited, and they beggar your hopes and your deserving….”

That’s the way I feel this book came to me, like an unexpected, unsought, transformational gift.


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