Book Review: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

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. 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 writing is intended to be read by the son once he has grown into manhood to perhaps understand the father who was not there to watch over that growth. To a great extent, though, as the narrator 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 there was a feel to the writing that made it seem more feminine than the thoughts of a contemplative man. But Robinson manages to use male-to-male relationships to essentially take us on the minister’s journey of self-discovery and perhaps even redemption.

(Cross-posted at

I’ve developed a great reputation for wisdom by ordering more books than I ever had time to read, and reading more books, by far, than I learned anything useful from, except, of course, that some very tedious gentlemen have written books.

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

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