Jason's Reviews > Gilead

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
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Dec 03, 13

Read from June 08 to 15, 2010

My 4 year old son is going to die...sometime in the future, like me--wishfully long after me--and we'll have no more time to talk. We should hopefully grow old together, but we'll grow old together as men. Yes, we'll always be father and son, but for the most part when we talk and share, he will be a man. What should I tell him now, as a boy? He's too young to remember, but I have so many things I want to say, to teach, to protect... There are things I want to tell him that are important now, that are things he will need to know when he becomes a man.

What if I die unexpectedly, and soon. What will I tell my son then? Nothing. He'll only have short, gauzy, incomplete memories of me doing something random with him. Teaching him to brush his teeth, buckling his car seat, throwing him into the air, comforting him when the thunder cracks; a dreamlike sequence of me passing through his thoughts, being present during an action, laughing at something he's done, somewhere. That's not enough. If that had happened with my father, I would have the slimmest perception of who he was and from what human stock I was beget. I wouldn't know my father.

It's like this with my maternal grandfather. He and I were never men together. I was a boy, he was a man, and then he died. My memories of him are far too narrow--Christmas vacation in out-county Kentucky, a family reunion in a church basement, him sitting with unknown relatives under a tree drinking lemonade during a summer so humid I remember perspiration under his arms and old man breasts and him calling black people 'the colored.' Whenever he left the house he wore a wool hat, respectable, perfunctory, polished, like men in the 1950s, and a cane was hooked over his knee when he sat under that shade tree calling people 'the colored.' I so desperately want to know that man, my grandfather.

I still have my father. I knew him when I was young; I knew him as my superhero father; I know him as a man. Thank God. I hope it pans out this way with my son. But, again, if it doesn't, then what do I tell him, now, that will guide and foster him into adulthood?

The answer is a journal. Capture my thoughts now, so that he can read them as a man, whenever he's ready. Pass my wisdom to him now, my thoughts, my lessons, my umbrage. Exactly that is the story of Gilead.

The father is in his mid-70s in poor health, nearing the end. His son is 7. The father is a minister like his father and grandfather before. The time is 1956 Kansas. The entire book is a journal entry for his son, not to be read until he grows up and becomes a man, and maybe not even then if the son decides against reading it. That's his prerogative. But, at least the father makes it available to the son. The entire book is a beautiful confessional of short thoughts on life, entries almost like one of his thousands of hand-written sermons bundled up with twine in the attic. He uses the written space to reveal family history, personal passions, his philosophy, his love, the guiding influences of his life. The book starts:

"I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I'm old, and you said, I don't think you're old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren't very old, as if that settled it. I told you you might have a very different life from mine, and from the life you've had with me, and that would be a wonderful thing, there are many ways to live a good life...It seems ridiculous to suppose the dead miss anything. If you're a grown man when you read this--it is my intention for this letter that you will read it then--I'll have been gone a long time. I'll know most of what there is to know about being dead, but I'll probably keep it to myself."(p. 3)

What a beautiful idea. Thoughtful, responsible, loving, timeless. My son will be a man longer than he will be a child. Childhood and adolescence are critical for human development and building basic personality traits, but reason, judgment, and wisdom wait to arrive until adulthood. That's when I need to talk to my son. So, unless I can promise my son I'll always be there, I need to sit down, collect my thoughts, and start writing a long letter to him. It will tell him how I grew up and learned about myself; it will tell him my joys and my strengths and my fears; it will tell him how I would do it all over again exactly the same way, and not to be so hard on himself; I'll tell him how I met his mother, and how our lives turned out so differently from the plans we made, but still so wonderfully; I'll tell him how I watched him grow up and rolled his ghostly thin and white belly skin between my fingers; I'll tell him how carefully he tottered over uneven ground; tell him how he always woke up with the same crazy bed hair, no matter the season or the length of hair or where he slept--always splayed out in the back and ruffled on the left; I'll tell him how I loved him in so many ways and know he'll be a great man and brother and father; I'll tell him people are mean, but not always; I'll tell him I loved rain to any other kind of weather; tell him to read more often; tell him to write to his kids. And when I write my journal, I'll have moments like this, I'm sure:

"I have been looking through these pages, and I realize that for some time I have mainly been worrying to myself, when my intention from the beginning was to speak to you. I meant to leave you a reasonably candid testament to my better self, and it seems to me now that what you must see here is just an old man struggling with the difficulty of understanding what it is he's struggling with." (p. 202)

Gilead is unique because of the subtle power of its narrative. It's a short book with simple writing, yet the father wrestles with the complexities of his faith, the enormity of life, and the profundity of culture and social values. Hidden beneath the plangent chords of his testimonial are approaches to deep chambers of religious philosophy and human nature. Marilynne Robinson achieves an awkward--but successful--balance in the book between, on one hand, a laser-focus on spirituality and, on the other, a broad, comprehensive account of one family's history and nature. It works, and it won the Pulitzer.

However, for me, the book would have been better if the father wasn't a minister, and instead something more general like a farmer, entrepreneur, or laborer. Why? Because a minister lives his profession, always, unable to filter his thoughts and experiences through any other than a spiritual sieve. Everything a minister does is guided by religious precedent, biblical law and morality, and Godly intent. This minister--the father--was a good Christian, so there was only minor human infraction to reveal, and never scandal or salaciousness to confess. Instead, that kind of debauch was revealed in the confessions of a few members of his congregation. The minister led a life that was both very human but also very sterile. Compassionate but not very intriguing. Every man sins, yet there was very little confession from the minister. When I write to my son, I will reveal from my life the embarrassments, the pejoratives, the vice, and the shortcomings that make me whole. I think that's more realistic.

Another great comment:

"Why do I love the thought of you old? That first twinge of arthritis in your knee is a thing I imagine with all the tenderness I felt when you showed my your loose tooth. Be diligent in your prayers, old man. I hope you will have seen more of the world than I ever got around to seeing--only myself to blame. And I hope you will have read some of my books. And God bless your eyes, and your hearing also, and of course your heart. I wish I could help you carry the weight of many years. But the Lord will have that fatherly satisfaction." (p. 210)

And so, 4 year old son of mine, if this review happens to be one of the written items you use to piece together a picture of your father, let me tell you this: I love you. I love your smell when you cry, the color on your cheeks in the summer, your early sense of humor, the spitting laugh you hold back when I tickle you, and the lines on the bottoms of your soft, pink feet. You don't necessarily have to be religious, but I think the secret to the world is to is to love one another. Be nice. Always take care of your siblings--even if they take a wrong turn here or there. That happens. Take your time, find the right spouse, and please have kids. Your dad gave Gilead 4 stars; give it a try. Maybe therein you'll see something of me.

New words: susurrus, lour, fungo, mutatis mutandis, irrefragable, swain, miscegenation,

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Comments (showing 1-30 of 30) (30 new)

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message 1: by brian (new)

brian tanabe Is someone making his way through the Pulitzer Prize list?

Jason Brian,

Very astute! That's exactly what I'm doing, until either I can't stand it anymore or I come to the point where I feel like I'm sufficiently well-rounded enough to start reading trashy historical romance again.

message 3: by Eh?Eh! (new)

Eh?Eh! Again? I'd be interested to read your reviews of the ones you've already read. :o)

Jennifer (aka EM) This is a very moving and lovely review, Jason.

Your focus on the father-son relationship is a different lens than I used (one I can't use, in fact), and even though it led you to a 4- not a 5-star rating, I'm so glad you had the reading experience you did and shared it so eloquently here.

Your son will be so lucky if/when he reads your words. I feel I'm about to get sappy, so I will exit quietly ....

message 5: by Jen (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jen This is brilliant. Again.

message 6: by Kristen (new)

Kristen Wow. I can't imagine this book could ever measure up to your wonderful review.

message 7: by Eh?Eh! (new)

Eh?Eh! This is completely gorgeous. Sigh. Your son has a wonderful father.

Jason Thanks all. This was an effort, for sure. I changed jobs mid-career in order to be around my family more often. The book was simple, but hit a chord with me. I actually had my wife proofread it before I posted it. I didn't want it to be too personal, too revealing, but I did want it to faithfully capture the feeling.

Yes, men have feelings--they're just covered, for the most part, by an unnecessary carapace. :)

message 9: by Pinky (new)

Pinky Wuss.

I'm kidding. Great writing, Jason. My son's a couple weeks shy of 7, and I get--and appreciate--very precisely what you're talking about. I had the luck to think about being a man not just with my dad but with my mom's dad, both of whom helped me navigate around compassion, those tricky "feelings" things, and the constant aggression assumed about, by, through "masculinity." When we knew our child was going to be a boy, I had a little moment of hyperventilating anxiety -- not just thinking about what he will have to go through but fears of what he, too, could become.

I put a lot of faith in the transformative power of jokes, making and hearing 'em--things I always relished with (and learned from) my grandfather, in particular. Gramp spent the last couple weeks of his life in the hospital, and I felt lucky to have the chance to sit and actually tell him some of these things, that he and my dad (Bob) had helped me figure out how to be a man. He didn't say much, but he later told my mom that he didn't know that, and was pleased to hear it. And then he muttered, "Beats me how Bob got on that list, too." I hope to hell I get a) to have such conversations with my kid, and not just in the last couple weeks, and b) to joke about said conversations with the same smartass gusto my grandfather always had.

Jason Ha, I knew someone would take a shot.

See, my son is too young to start making mature connections with me. I would think that, by 7, you're starting to have discussions with your son that carry a little more weight than, 'hey, go chase that bird, good boy.'

I've never had an epiphanous discussion with any of the men in my lineage. On one side, they're tough immigrants, and the other side, farmers. So, your quite lucky to have had a moment like that with your Gramps.

I also have a daughter. She'll be locked in the attic until she's 24.

message 11: by D. (new) - rated it 5 stars

D. Pow Jason, this is the best, most touching thing, I've seen you write yet. Kudos.

message 12: by Miriam (new)

Miriam It is never to early to start setting a good example, Jason! If I recall correctly my brother was already telling me, at 7, how he was going to be a better father than our dad, and would play with his kids and listen to them. Don't wait.

Jason D., coming from someone who has actually posted some good writing (and not to mention reveiws), I take that as a large compliment.

Miriam, I hit this site in June 2009 like gangbusters. To tell the truth, I'm writing all these reviews for my kids. For some reason I've never been able to keep a journal, then all of a sudden I'm 39 and writing reviews like crazy. My family is NOT literate, and all I would have wished was for some great uncle or great-great grandma to list their favorite books. I'm hoping that 1 of my 3 kids (or a great nephew) will get to know me, in the near future or even in the distant future, on a certain level by reading similar books--kind of let the novel do some 500+ pages of talking for me, huh?

message 14: by Miriam (new)

Miriam I'm thankful to have books that belonged to my grandmother, as well as some newspaper articles she wrote.

Jason Glen, I'm out of state on vacation and checking mail from a hotel computer. Just wanted to let you know I'll give a response in kind when I return in a few days....

Please give Gilead a turn; I think your temperment and introspection matches nicely with the father in the book.

Jason Glen, as people age, they tend to concentrate on these 3 things more than at any other point in their lives: their health, spirituality, and genealogy. A journal is a fantastic idea, but at the midpoint of career, mortgage, and age, I just haven't found the right time. I know, I know, I could reallocate time, but when I've tried that in the past, a journal just didn't feel right. It felt half-baked, kind of hokey. I haven't yet felt mortality strongly enough to commit time by writing.

I spend a lot of time with them, like you did, but I suspect that I won't start feeling genealogy until about the point you did (you started in 1994--probably in your 50's).

So when I write reviews, I no-kidding feel like it's my half of a discussion for my kids when they grow up. The oldest is 6, so I am, in a way, recording a snapshot of my thoughts that they can review later.

I'm big on being a dad, so I'm sure I'll start cobbling something together for my kids, but I just don't see it happening in the nearest future.

message 17: by Dolly (new) - added it

Dolly Jason,
Great review! I'm reading it while holding my 5 year old in my lap and drinking in the smell of cinnamon sugar on her. I think it's time to turn away from the computer and go play.
Ciao, my friend. Good work.

Jason Dolly, the cinnamon smell of your daughter will be with you the rest of your days. You and I will be able to close our eyes, at the age of 80, and remember the smell of our children. Already I miss them passing through infant/toddler stage.

Glen, I like your idea of 'dangerous opportunity' in place of 'mid-life crises.' As slow--but as inexorable--as the planets move, I'm sure I'm orbiting toward a 'dangerous opportunity' in the middle-future. Oddly, I'm looking forward to it., looking forward to resetting new goals, schedules, agendas, and starting after them. Like you, I think I'll reallocate time from reading & living to writing & recording.

message 19: by [deleted user] (new)

Thanks for the comment. I'm not quite sure how you reallocate time from living. I have a friend that completed his philosophy degree at about 70. He's a retired professional engineer. Another started using his bike again at 76.

The amount of living you do is the same,but perceived differently. I'm living differently as I'm spendng more time doing things I want to do rather than things I have to do. I'm not recording much anymore(the older generation is mostly gone), but I'm actually reading more not less. The amount of writing I do depends on my activity level and my mood. I don't always feel a need to write which I understand is one of the requirements to be a good writer. I'm suspect writing is more important to you than me.

The challenge at any age, in my opinion, is to have enough purpose and challenge to maintain what many authors call "flow". We all can suffer from boredom or too many demands on our time if we have difficulty finding a reasonable balance.

My wife got a tatoo on her hip this year and we started kayaking last year. I'm not quite ready to settle down to writing and recording. Maybe when I'm more mature.

message 20: by Patricia (new)

Patricia Baumann I loved your review.I am a Nana with 4grandchildren under the age of 11. I have written books which answer many of the questions I wish I could ask my beloved deceased parents.

message 21: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth Mundie What a beautiful review!

Jason Thanks Patricia and Elizabeth. Unfortunately, since I've written this review, I suffered a sudden and totally unexpected divorce. My efforts to save the marriage were cast aside, and my kids were moved 1800 miles away. So, rereading this reveiw actually makes me teary, as it has even more meaning now than I could have possibly known when written.

message 23: by Miriam (new)

Miriam Oh, no! I'm so sorry, Jason.

Jason Miriam, I've had to downsize everything, including my expectations of how to be a father. I'm in the middle of a career change, too, that means little to me now without a family at home. At 42 I'm starting over with a hole in my heart and lungs.

Thanks for commenting. Simple acknowledgement means a lot to me right now.

Chris Damn. I'm so sorry to hear that, Jason. Your wonderful review of this excellent book made me teary and really hit home for me. My father has always been emotionally distant and I'm trying to be a different father to my own three boys.

Then I skimmed through the messages and hit Message 22 and now I'm tearing up all over again. I'm so sorry.

Jason Chris, hold your boys, as tightly as you can. When they're gone, it might be in a way you never expected. Your time is now.

message 27: by Esteban (new)

Esteban del Mal Sorry, Jason.

message 28: by Bev (new) - rated it 3 stars

Bev This is the first time a book review made me cry! What a fortunate boy your son is to have such a father as you!

message 29: by Salman (new) - added it

Salman it reflects my feelings

message 30: by Amanda (new)

Amanda Morgan Jones I am in Florida on vacation. The condo I'm staying in has a copy of this book tucked away in a drawer.I was debating whether or not I should read it,so I decided to check out reviews first.Jason,your review made my mind up for me. I live in Western Kentucky and the things you shared about your grandfather feels so similar to my experiences with both of my grandfathers.

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