“Since my people are crushed, I am crushed; I mourn, and horror grips me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wounds of my people?” (Jeremiah 8:21-22)
The original Gilead was a historic region east of the Jordan, known biblically for both its soothing, healing “balm” and for its iniquitous and violent population. Etymologically the Hebrew word is also related to the idea of beholding, translating literally as “heap of witness”.* There is no doubt that Marilynne Robinson had these associations in mind when she entitled her second novel Gilead and set it in an eponymous backwater town in 1950s Iowa. The apparent dichotomies of the biblical Gilead - curative potential pooled with shameful injustice - serve to frame a narrative that functions on a number levels, at once an advisory epistle, an Augustinian confession and a moral drama. The product of a twenty-four year break from fiction writing (her debut Housekeeping was published way back in 1980), it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction last year and has met with almost universal acclaim.
In 1956 Reverend John Ames, aged 76 and nearing the end of his life, begins a letter to his seven year old son, the only child of a marriage made in his twilight years. His stated motives are touchingly simple: that his son should remember him, learn from his mistakes, forgive him his age, know of his enormous love and of the regret he feels at having to leave him. In the course of Rev. Ames final weeks the letter transmutes, absorbing a bombardment of memory and changing circumstances and becoming part wisdom narrative, part family history and part current drama. It begins with the rhythm of “begats” so familiar to readers of the Old Testament:
“I, John Ames, was born in the Year of Our Lord 1880 in the state of Kansas, the son of John Ames and Martha Turner Ames, grandson of John Ames and Margaret Todd Ames. At the time of writing I have lived seventy-six years, seventy-four of them here in Gilead, Iowa… And what else should I tell you?”
The Ames men have been preachers for generations, and our John’s gentle tone – his letter-voice modulates in contemplative and soothing cadences - conceals a deeply subversive heritage. His grandfather was a fire-and-brimstone abolitionist who knew John Browne and gave sermons, gun in hand and still bloody from fighting; his own father once scrubbed blood off his pews after sheltering wounded rebels. Indeed, Gilead itself was a town founded on the principles of the Free Soilers, a short-lived political party of the mid-nineteenth century whose election banners read “Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor, Free Man!”
Nevertheless, it’s clear that our John Ames, who spent nearly 50 years of his life as a scholarly, reclusive widower (his first wife died in childbirth when he was in his early 20s) is not part of this subversive, liberalised landscape. As for Gilead, once a refuge for escaped slaves, it no longer has an African-American population and likes it that way. As Ames explains to his son, all the “negro” townspeople left after a “small, accidental” fire at their church; he is sorry, on reflection, that he never once to spoke to their pastor. When, during the writing of the letter Ames’ godson and namesake, the renegade John Ames Boughton, returns to Gilead looking for redemption and forgiveness, a pervasive culture of conformity and prejudice is revealed beneath the pleasantness of the town.
Writing in a deeply intertextual and mimetic prose Robinson does a masterful job of teasing out the beauty inherent in Gilead and the good inherent in John Ames. So much so, in fact, that the Washington Post reviewer considered him “that most rare of things – a truly good man”. This is only true insomuch as every good man is also deeply flawed. Ames is an extraordinarily blessed individual, who looks at life – the turning of the seasons, young men laughing at rude jokes, his wife in a blue dress –with constant awe. He relates his memories with a serious gratefulness, giving them the miraculous and visionary quality that becomes one of the novel’s leitmotifs. A recurring image is his first glimpse of his second wife:
“I do enjoy remembering that morning. I was sixty-seven, to be exact, which did not seem old to me. I wish I could give you the memory I have of your mother that day. I wish I could leave you certain of the images in my mind, because they are so beautiful that I hate to think they will be extinguished when I am. Well, but again, this life has its own mortal loveliness. And memory is not strictly mortal in its nature, either.”
He has himself the “learned innocence” that he sees in his son’s mother, and as the novel unfolds its heavier thematics are underlaid with this uncomplicated tenderness for the “loveliness of mortality”. This, I imagine, is the true “balm” in Gilead: that something may be ordinary in kind but, through our eyes, be exceptional in degree.
Nevertheless, and even despite the apparent benignity of our first person narrator, Ames is awash with tension. (I admit to a growing concern in the first fifty pages that Robinson had written a “chicken soup for the soul”-type novel, that the greatest revelation her protagonist had to offer was that the ordinary is filled with God.) His happiness is tinged with a lifetime of regret and resentment, the key facet of which is his inability to deal with his conflicted emotions towards young Boughton. His first instinct is mistrust, his second jealousy as he fantasises that Boughton is attempting to steal his late-life family. As Ame’s focuses on exposing Boughton’s past misdemeanours, he ignores unresolved feelings; when Boughton calls him “Papa” he fails to understand the psychological significance of their relationship. He mistakes clumsy love for mockery.
The world outside seeps into Gilead slowly, revealing an America divided and crippled by conflicts of race, religion and wealth. These are also the “wounds” crushing the people of Gilead and Robinson appears to have made a conscious statement in specifically choosing 1956, a year on the cusp of change, for her expose of small time life. In the general election of that year both Republicans and Democrats wavered over the issues of racial segregation and anti-miscegenation that thread through the novel’s second half (Ames follows the election, but Robinson’s commentary is subtle to the point of non-existence). And of course 1956 was also the year of the Montgomery Bus Boycott that brought Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and the plight of black Americans to international attention.
[An aside: It strikes me, in retrospect, that Gilead might have resonated even deeper were I an American. That isn’t to say that Marilynne Robinson’s novel is short-sighted or parochial in its scope, only that the ambience and atmosphere of the novel was somewhat alien to me. The tenderness directed at an American life lived quietly was often a mystery to me in its specifity. Admittedly notions of 1950s America, almost exclusively mediated through the (often disparaging) lens of late twentieth century media, has more than a little pastiche about it. The more serious issues of racial segregation and anti-miscegenation, so recent in the memory of America that Alabama only repealed its anti-miscegenation law in 2000 (with 40% voting to keep it), are dreadful in their distance from me. I can only peer in, agreeing with the wisdom of Robinson’s conclusions but without the heavy burden of it being my own cultural heritage.]
The quote from Jeremiah above – it doesn’t appear in the book but I knew of it and sought it out – seems so absolutely fundamental to Robinson’s narrative that I’ve built my entire reading of the book about it. In fact Gilead succeeded in explicating the verse for me where sermons have failed, and this seems beautifully fitting given that John Ames is a preacher and often explains expounds on how his sermons gloss biblical text. There *is* balm in Gilead; it is on every page in Robinson’s serene and preacherly ventriloquism. She lulls us with the current wisdom that the little things, the personal things, make life glorious and worth living. Beauty in a grain of sand, joy in the fall of leaves etc. I don’t disagree: we should feel blessed. But the terrible truth of Gilead is that the balm offered, the balm we have, is not the right kind for all our wounds. Individual joy does not negate national injustice, or communal cruelty, abuse or negligence; it isn’t ever going to be *enough*. John Ames’ content twilight does not make up for Boughton’s mid-life sorrow. On the contrary, it may even contribute to it.
It seems to me there is a deeper wisdom in that than in any life-affirming narrative that pretends consolation. Even as it takes comfort in the miracle of simple existence Gilead questions its own frame of reference and points up an essential dichotomy in human experience. It captures it with unusual prescience:
“There are two occasions when the sacred beauty of Creation becomes dazzlingly apparent, and they occur together. One is when we feel out mortal insufficiency to the world, and the other is when we feel the world’s mortal insufficiency to us. Augustine says the Lord loves each of us as an only child, and that has to be true. ‘He will wipe the tears from all faces.’ It takes nothing from the loveliness of the verse to say that is exactly what will be required.”
Certainly, it is a novel that works on you and it may be no bad thing that I’ve mulled for nearly a week on my feelings for it. With such quiet, perfectly measured prose and apparently gentle thematics, it takes time to recognise its true open-eyed forcefulness. Having come back to it for the purposes of posting, I’m prepared to say that it’s now my favourite for winning the Orange.
* It is also, quite disconcertingly, the name of the post-apocalyptic Republic from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1983). Whether Robinson knew this and the intertextuality is intended I don’t know. It strikes me immediately that both novels engage deeply with the Old Testament and are rendered in deeply individualised first person by “witnesses”. Given the shared characteristics unintentional overlap seems entirely possible. Still, having flicked quickly through my old copy of the Atwood I’m inclined to think the books’ could be productively read in dialogue with each other.