United We Read 2006

Gilead  by Marilynne Robinson





Twenty-four years after her first novel, Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson returns with an intimate tale of three generationsfrom the Civil War to thetwentieth century:  a story about fathers and sons and the spiritual battles that still rage at America's heart. Writing in the tradition of Dickinson and Whitman, Marilynne robinson's beautiful, spare, and spiritual prose allows "even the faithless reader to feel the possibility of transcendent order" (Slate).  In the luminous and unforgettable voice of Congregationalist minister John Ames, Gilead reveals the human condition and the often unbearable beauty of an ordinary life.


Excerpt from: Picador

Author Biography:



Marilynne Robinson was born in 1947 in Sandpoint, Idaho, where she grew up and attended high school. After graduating from Brown University in 1966, she enrolled in the graduate program in English at the University of Washington. While writing her dissertation, Robinson began work on her first novel, Housekeeping (1981). Now regarded by many critics as an American classic, Housekeeping tells the haunting story of two girls growing up in rural Idaho in the mid-1900s. It addresses themes of loss and survival, transience, and coming-of-age. The novel is also steeped in images of the Northwest’s landscape—lakes, mountains, and forests—that reflect Robinson’s knowledge of and concern for the natural world. Housekeeping received the PEN/Hemingway award for best first novel and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

About the Book:












In 1956, toward the end of Reverend John Ames's life, he begins a letter to his young son, an account of himself and his forebears. Ames is the son of an Iowan preacher and the grandson of a minister who, as a young man in Maine, saw a vision of Christ bound in chains and came west to Kansas to fight for abolition: He "preached men into the Civil War," then, at age fifty, became a chaplain in the Union Army, losing his right eye in battle. Reverend Ames writes to his son about the tension between his father--an ardent pacifist--and his grandfather, whose pistol and bloody shirts, concealed in an army blanket, may be relics from the fight between the abolitionists and those settlers who wanted to vote Kansas into the union as a slave state. And he tells a story of the sacred bonds between fathers and sons, which are tested in his tender and strained relationship with his namesake, John Ames Boughton, his best friend's wayward son.

This is also the tale of another remarkable vision--not a corporeal vision of God but the vision of life as a wondrously strange creation. It tells how wisdom was forged in Ames's soul during his solitary life, and how history lives through generations, pervasively present even when betrayed and forgotten.

Gilead is the long-hoped-for second novel by one of our finest writers, a hymn of praise and lamentation to the God-haunted existence that Reverend Ames loves passionately, and from which he will soon part.

Discussion Questions:








































1. What was your perception of the narrator in the opening paragraphs? In what ways did your understanding of him change throughout the novel? Did John's own perception of his life seem to evolve as well?

2. Biblical references to Gilead (a region near the Jordan River) describe its plants as having healing properties. The African American spiritual, “There Is a Balm in Gilead” equates Jesus with this balm. According to some sources, the Hebrew origin of the word simply means “rocky area.” Do these facts make Gilead an ironic or symbolically accurate title for the novel?

3. The vision experienced by John's grandfather is a reminder that the Christ he loves identifies utterly with the oppressed and afflicted, whom he must therefore help to free. He is given his mission, like a biblical prophet. This kind of vision was reported by many abolitionists, and they acted upon it as he did. What guides John in discerning his own mission?

4. How does John seem to feel about his brother's atheism in retrospect? What accounts for Edward's departure from the church? What enabled John to retain his faith?

5. The rituals of communion and baptism provide many significant images throughout the novel. What varied meanings do John and his parishioners ascribe to them? What makes him courageous enough to see the sacred in every aspect of life?

6. One of the most complex questions for John to address is the notion of salvation—how it is defined, and how (or whether) God determines who receives it. How do the novel's characters convey assorted possibilities about this topic? What answers would you have given to the questions John faces regarding the fate of souls and the nature of pain in the world?

7. Marilynne Robinson included several quotations from Scripture and hymns; John expresses particular admiration for Isaac Watts, an eighteenth-century English minister whose hymns were widely adopted by various Protestant denominations. Do you believe that certain texts are divinely inspired? What is the role of metaphor in communicating about spiritual matters?

8. Discuss the literary devices used in this novel, such as its epistolary format, John's finely honed voice, and the absence of conventional chapter breaks (save for a long pause before Jack's marriage is revealed). How would you characterize Gilead's narrative structure?

9. What commentary does John offer about the differences between his two wives? Do you agree with Jack when he calls John's marriage unconventional?

10. John describes numerous denominations in his community, including Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Quakers, and Congregationalists. What can you infer from the presence of such variety? Or does the prevalence of Protestants mean that there is little religious variety in Gilead?

11. What might John think of current religious controversies in America? In what ways are his worries and joys relevant to twenty-first-century life?

12. John grapples mightily with his distrust of Jack. Do you believe John writes honestly about the nature of that distrust? What issues contribute to these struggles with his namesake?

13. Discuss the author's choice of setting for Gilead. Is there a difference between the way religion manifests itself in small towns versus urban locales? What did you discover about the history of Iowa's rural communities and about the strain of radicalism in Midwestern history? Did it surprise you?

14. Abolition drew John's grandfather to the Midwest, and the novel concludes at the dawn of the civil rights movement. In what ways does this evolution of race relations mirror the changes John has witnessed in society as a whole?

15. Is Gilead a microcosm for American society in general?

16.In his closing lines, John offers a sort of benediction to his son, praying that he will “grow up a brave man in a brave country” and “find a way to be useful.” Do you predict a future in which his hope came true? What do you imagine John experiences in his final sleep?

17. Robinson's beloved debut novel, Housekeeping, features a narrator with a voice just as distinctive as John's. Do the longings conveyed in Housekeeping and Gilead bear any resemblance to one another? How might John have counseled Ruth?






2005 Pulitzer Prize Winner for Fiction

2005 Grawemeyer Award in Religion Winner

2005 Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize Winner

2005 Melcher Book Award Winner

2004 National Book Critics Circle Winner

New York Times Top-Ten Book of 2004

2006 United We Read selection

2006 All Iowa Reads Book

2006 Nominations:






First Runner Up:  My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult

Other 2006 Nominations included:

  1. Blink by Malcolm Gladwell
  2. Dreams From My Father - Barack Obama
  3. Into the Wild - John Krakauer
  4. Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro
  5. One Soldier's Story: A Memoir - Bob Dole
  6. Tortilla Curtain - T.C. Boyle
  7. The Ha Ha - Dave King

Ordering Information:


ISBN:  0-312-42440-X; Price $14.00

Available in all your local public libraries

2006 United We Read Selection Committee:








Alicia Ahlvers - Kansas City Public Library

Donna Jo Atwood - Olathe Public Library

Trish Downey - Johnson County Library

Amy Fisher - Mid-Continent Public Library

Maureen Fitzpatrick - Johnson County Community College

Virginia Hermes - Johnson County Library

Andrea Kempf - Johnson County Community College

Bob Lunn - Kansas City Public Library

Kaite Mediatore - Kansas City Kansas Public Library

Meredith Roberson - North Kansas City Public Library

Shelle Rosenfeld - Lawrence Public Library


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Last Updated 1/10/06