I confess I grew prickly imagining what lay behind the grim austerity of Marilynne Robinsons new title, Gilead. Her amalgam of fathers, sons, religion, and war - conjured in one extended breath - does not immediately bespeak notions of tenderness.
But Gilead, the name of Robinsons fictional Iowa village, also connotes healing and wholeness (remember the old spiritual "There Is a Balm..."). And therein lies the power of this long-awaited second novel by one of Americas great contemporary writers. Its narrative weaves redemption from the bitter flax of generational and ideological wounds.
In a series of diary entries, the terminally ill Rev. John Ames writes to his 7-year-old son as a way of passing on his genealogy and a bit of wisdom before he dies. What unfolds is a rich history, starting with Ames grandfather - a preacher who, possessed by his abolitionist convictions, fights for the Union side in a Kansas regiment. Inspired by a vision he once received of Christ bound in chains, he occupies the pulpit with a pistol strapped to his belt, "preaching men into the Civil War."