About a third of the way through this book, I was still thinking: I just don’t get it. What I didn’t get is the praise for the book and the fact it won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction. I must still admit that I sometimes think I just don’t get “literature.” But the last half of this book demonstrates why it was so favorably viewed as Marilynne Robinson cultivates a literary garden she spent much time preparing.
Gilead is purported to be a lengthy letter/diary written in 1956 by an elderly minister (late 70s) with a failing heart to a son nearly 70 years his junior. The letter is intended to be read by the son once he has grown into manhood as an opportunity to perhaps know and understand the father who was not there to watch over that growth. To a great extent, though, as the minister says, “what you must see here is just an old man struggling with the difficulty of understanding what it is he’s struggling with.” At bottom, what he’s struggling with is what almost any of us would struggle with as we ponder the end of our lives — how we’ve lived our life and how we got to where we are today.
Along the way, you not only get the minister’s meditations on spirituality and existence (passages showing serious reflection by Robinson) but a view of four generations of life in Gilead, Iowa. Gilead is a prairie town “within striking distance of Kansas” where the minister has lived virtually all of his life. Given its location, it has a history of abolitionism that helps set the stage for ruminations on the relationships between fathers and sons.
It is somewhat surprising that a novel written by a woman would focus on father-son dynamics. That was, from my perspective, a minor failing of the book. Perhaps it is my imagination, but at times the writing had a feel that seemed more feminine than the thoughts of a contemplative man. But Robinson manages to use male-to-male relationships to take us on a fine exposition of the minister’s journey of self-discovery and perhaps even redemption.