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
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 Northwestâs landscapeâlakes,
mountains, and forestsâthat reflect Robinsonâs 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.
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
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.
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
2. Biblical references to
Gilead (a region near the Jordan River) describe its plants as having
healing properties. The African American spiritual, âThere Is a Balm in
Gileadâ equates Jesus with this balm. According to some sources, the
Hebrew origin of the word simply means ârocky area.â Do these facts make
Gilead an ironic or symbolically accurate title for the
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?
One of the most complex questions for John to address is the notion of
salvationâhow 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
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
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?
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 âgrow up a brave man in a
brave countryâ and âfind a way to be useful.â Do you predict a future in
which his hope came true? What do you imagine John experiences in his
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
Pulitzer Prize Winner for Fiction
2005 Grawemeyer Award in Religion
2005 Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize
2005 Melcher Book Award Winner
2004 National Book Critics
New York Times Top-Ten
Book of 2004
United We Read selection
2006 All Iowa Reads
First Runner Up: My
Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult
Other 2006 Nominations
Blink by Malcolm
Dreams From My Father - Barack
Into the Wild - John
Never Let Me Go - Kazuo
One Soldier's Story: A Memoir -
Tortilla Curtain - T.C.
The Ha Ha - Dave
ISBN: 0-312-42440-X; Price
Available in all your local public
2006 United We ReadSelection Committee:
Alicia Ahlvers - Kansas City Public
Donna Jo Atwood - Olathe Public
Trish Downey - Johnson County
Amy Fisher - Mid-Continent Public
Maureen Fitzpatrick -
Johnson County Community College
Virginia Hermes - Johnson County
Andrea Kempf - Johnson County
Bob Lunn - Kansas City Public
Kaite Mediatore - Kansas City Kansas
Meredith Roberson - North Kansas
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