A Preacher's Last Rites

I confess I grew prickly imagining what lay behind the grim austerity of Marilynne Robinson'

I confess I grew prickly imagining what lay behind the grim austerity of Marilynne Robinson’s 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 Robinson’s 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 America’s 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."

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Sojourners Magazine March 2005
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