If Marilynne Robinson wasn’t a writer, she could have been a therapist. I’ve never encountered a person who is able to so thoroughly understand the deep motivations of another human being as well as her. In Gilead, she writes with the honest voice of an elderly preacher living in the 1950s.
Gilead is the (fictional) memoir of Rev. John Aimes. Recognizing that his heart condition will soon get the better of him, he wrote this book to give his young son a way to understand him after his death. The memoir is filled with stories of his relationships to his family and friends both past and present.
This book resonated with me in a number of ways. As a father, hearing Aimes talk about the little details of his son’s life through the bittersweet lens of his encroaching death was very poignant. Take this reflection, for example:
At this very moment I feel a kind of loving grief for you as you read this, because I do not know you, and because you have grown up fatherless, you poor child, lying on your belly now in the sun with Soapy asleep on the small of your back. You are drawing those terrible little pictures that you will bring me to admire, and which I will admire because I have not the heart to say one word that you might remember against me. (104)
One joy in reading this book was Aimes’ love for theology. He read Barth and Calvin and was able to reflect with both theological depth and pastoral charity. Consider the truth in this passage, where Aimes remembers feeling challenged to save an unbelieving friend:
They want me to defend religion, and they want me to give them “proofs.” I just won’t do it. It only confirms them in their skepticism. But nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defense. (177)
I suppose the most overarching quality the drew me into this book was Rev. Aimes’ honesty. It was almost unsettling read the life of a man who was so honest with himself.
Would that we all could live such examined lives.
—Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (New York: Harper Perennial, 2004).