Welcome to Fiction Friday and my blog book club! In last Friday’s post, I invited you to join me in discussing Gilead, a novel by Marilynne Robinson. It’s worth noting that Robinson’s writing successes span genres; she’s published different types of nonfiction as well as fiction. That’s what I want to be when I grow up: an inter-genrational author.
Today’s discussion looks at pages 3-17 of the 2004 hardcover edition of Gilead, up to the paragraph that begins: “You know, I suppose, that I married a girl when I was young.” If you read last’s week post, you’ll remember that Gilead doesn’t have traditional chapter breaks. The text has spacing breaks with an occasional break indicated by a short line. My opinion is that spacing breaks generally represent a different day, while line breaks may indicate later on the same day. Later we’ll talk about one significant exception to this normal format.
You may also recall that a primary theme is the relationships between fathers and sons, and this first section gives a glimpse of John Ames’ relationship with his six-year-old son as well as a story showing his relationship with his father and his father’s relationship with his father.
How many novels have you read that begin by addressing “you”? Not very many, I’m sure. Here’s about half of the first paragraph:
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 (p. 3).
If an unknown author submitted to an editor a first page that portrayed dialogue that way, it would be the rare editor who would see past the format to the beautiful style. And it is beautiful. We can hear the narrator’s kindness and gentleness. We hear the typical queries of a very young boy. We see the boy put his hand into the man’s; we can imagine the bulky fingers tenderly intertwining with the small ones. We know that this narrator believes in God and trusts him. He believes he’s had a good life and that his son will have a good life, too, even though he realizes his son’s experience will be very different from his own and from the life they have together now. And we learn in this first paragraph that our narrator is dying.
Like a gently murmuring stream, the narrator continues this letter to his son. As he writes, a picture of the man and his situation emerges. We learn he’s a minister who lives with this son and his mother in an old parsonage that he’s lived in most of his life. We learn that he lived in great loneliness there for a time. And we learn that his heart is failing and he will die soon. He regrets not having provided better financially for his young family. He apologizes for the hard times he knows his son and his mother will go through after his death.
Several times in this section we see the way John Ames is touched by beauty. He hears his wife and son talking as she tries to get the child to sleep. He hears her sing, which sounds beautiful to him. Reflecting on beauty, he wonderfully describes young mechanics joking and smoking (p. 5). He sees a bubble float past his window “fat and wobbly and ripening toward that dragonfly blue they turn just before they burst.” He looks down and sees the boy and his mother blowing bubbles at the cat, who was beside herself, leaping in the air. He writes about the bubbles: “They were very lovely. Your mother is wearing her blue dress and you are wearing your red shirt and you were kneeling on the ground together with Soapy between and the effulgence of bubble rising, and so much laughter. Ah, this life, this world (p. 9).
Ames relates some personal history, including this telling sentence: “My mother’s father was a preacher, and my father’s father was, too, and his father before him, and before that, nobody knows, but I wouldn’t hesitate to guess” (p. 6). After admitting that he and his father disappointed each other, even though they meant well, he confesses a “deeply mysterious fact”:
You can know a thing to death and be for all purposes completely ignorant of it. A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension (p. 7).
Later he writes: “My father left me a trade, which happened also to be my vocation. But the fact is, it was all second nature to me, I grew up with it. Most likely you will not (p. 8). On page 9, he begins a lengthy story about a trip he took with his father to find the grave of his father, who had died in Kansas (the fictional town of Gilead is located in extreme southwestern Iowa). He recounts the remarkable trek, which took place in 1892, with vivid descriptions.
After finally finding the grave and cleaning up the cemetery, he and his father stand to pray. Struggling to keep his eyes closed during that very long prayer, young John Ames looks around and relates an ingrained memory:
At first I thought I saw the sun setting in the east; I knew where east was, because the sun was just over the horizon when we got there that morning. Then I realized that what I saw was a full moon rising just as the sun was going down. Each of them was standing on its edge, with the most wonderful light between them. It seemed as if you could touch it, as if there were palpable currents of light passing back and forth, or as if there were great taut skeins of light suspended between them (p. 14)
This descriptive ability and Robinson’s literary skill make Gilead a joy to read. Some people find the pace too slow and don’t enjoy it. If you’ve read it, what was your initial reaction? What parts of this first section struck you?