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Gilead: A Novel

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Gilead: A Novel Cover

 

 

Excerpt

Excerpt from Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Copyright © 2004 by Marilynne Robinson. Published in November, 2004 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

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. And you said, Mama already told me that. And then you said, Don't laugh! because you thought I was laughing at you. You reached up and put your fingers on my lips and gave me that look I never in my life saw on any other face besides your mother's. It's a kind of furious pride, very passionate and stern. I'm always a little surprised to find my eyebrows unsinged after I've suffered one of those looks. I will miss them.

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. That seems to be the way of things.

I don't know how many times people have asked me what death is like, sometimes when they were only an hour or two from finding out for themselves. Even when I was a very young man, people as old as I am now would ask me, hold on to my hands and look into my eyes with their old milky eyes, as if they knew I knew and they were going to make me tell them. I used to say it was like going home. We have no home in this world, I used to say, and then I'd walk back up the road to this old place and make myself a pot of coffee and a friend-egg sandwich and listen to the radio, when I got one, in the dark as often as not. Do you remember this house? I think you must, a little. I grew up in parsonages. I've lived in this one most of my life, and I've visited in a good many others, because my father's friends and most of our relatives also lived in parsonages. And when I thought about it in those days, which wasn't too often, I thought this was the worst of them all, the draftiest and the dreariest. Well, that was my state of mind at the time. It's a perfectly good old house, but I was all alone in it then. And that made it seem strange to me. I didn't feel very much at home in the world, that was a face. Now I do.

And now they say my heart is failing. The doctor used the term "angina pectoris," which has a theological sound, like misericordia. Well, you expect these things at my age. My father died an old man, but his sisters didn't live very long, really. So I can only be grateful. I do regret that I have almost nothing to leave you and your mother. A few old books no one else would want. I never made any money to speak of, and I never paid any attention to the money I had. It was the furthest thing from my mind that I'd be leaving a wife and child, believe me. I'd have been a better father if I'd known. I'd have set something by for you.

That is the main thing I want to tell you, that I regret very deeply the hard times I know you and your mother must have gone through, with no real help from me at all, except my prayers, and I pray all the time. I did while I lived, and I do now, too, if that is how things are in the next life.

I can hear you talking with your mother, you asking, she answering. It's not the words I hear, just the sounds of your voices. You don't like to go to sleep, and every night she has to sort of talk you into it all over again. I never hear her sing except at night, from the next room, when she's coaxing you to sleep. And then I can't make out what song it is she's singing. Her voice is very low. It sounds beautiful to me, but she laughs when I say that.

I really can't tell what's beautiful anymore. I passed two young fellows on the street the other day. I know who they are, they work at the garage. They're not churchgoing, either one of them, just decent rascally young fellows who have to be joking all the time, and there they were, propped against the garage wall in the sunshine, lighting up their cigarettes. They're always so black with grease and so strong with gasoline I don't know why they don't catch fire themselves. They were passing remarks back and forth the way they do and laughing that wicked way they have. And it seemed beautiful to me. It is an amazing thing to watch people laugh, the way it sort of takes them over. Sometimes they really do struggle with it. I see that in church often enough. So I wonder what it is and where it comes from, and I wonder what it expends out of your system, so that you have to do it till you're done, like crying in a way, I suppose, except that laughter is much more easily spent.

When hey saw me coming, of course the joking stopped, but I could see they were still laughing to themselves, thinking what the old preacher almost heard the say.

I felt like telling them, I appreciate a joke as much as anybody. There have been many occasions in my life when I have wanted to say that. But it's not a thing people are willing to accept. They want you to be a little bit apart. I felt like saying, I'm a dying man, and I won't have so many more occasions to laugh, in this world at least. But that would just make them serious and polite, I suppose. I'm keeping my condition a secret as long as I can. For a dying man I feel pretty good, and that is a blessing. Of course your mother knows about it. She said if I feel good, maybe the doctor is wrong. But at my age there's a limit to how wrong he can be.

That's the strangest thing about this life, about being in the ministry. And then sometimes those very same people come into your study and tell you the most remarkable things. There's a lot under the surface of life, everyone knows that. A lot of malice and dread and guilt, and so much loneliness, where you wouldn't really expect a find it, either.

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Baochi, September 19, 2011 (view all comments by Baochi)
A few years ago, I bought a used copy of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead because it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2005 and I aim to read most -- if not all -- Pulitzer Prize Fiction winners through the ages. However, I was in no hurry to read Gilead based on its synopsis. The combination of a seventy-something protagonist, an obscure town setting, and a religious theme just didn’t sound like the page-turning story that I confess I’m always looking to read. Eventually, I had the good sense (or dumb luck) to pack Gilead alongside several other books for a solo vacation a couple of years ago.

I love when my negative assumptions are completely upended, and the object of my assumption is revealed in beautiful truth. That’s exactly what happened with Gilead. What I thought would be a boring novel turned out to be a profoundly transforming one.

The story is narrated by minister John Ames, who is seventy-six and dying. As a gift to his seven year-old son, John shares his meditations on life, love, family, friendship and forgiveness. He describes three generations of Ames men, the misunderstandings between them, their love. Whether John is pondering a moment or a lifetime, he is never far from its spiritual significance. Those soulful musings -- rather than coming off as preachy or unwelcome or scriptural -- are delivered gently, simply. The prose is spare yet arresting and beautiful. Gilead is an experience…and yes, a spiritual one I am grateful for.

Read some of my favorite passages from Gilead below and perhaps you’ll get a tiny glimpse of what I mean about this special book.

"These people who can see right through you never quite do you justice, because they never give you credit for the effort you’re making to be better than you actually are, which is difficult and well meant and deserving of some little notice."

"Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday. It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain. You can feel the silent and invisible life.”

"Memory can make a thing seem to have been much more than it was."
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dustinpattison, January 1, 2011 (view all comments by dustinpattison)
This is an absolutely beautiful and thoughtful book brimming with wisdom and insight and humanity. When reading Gilead, one is (almost against one's will) slowed down to a pace closer to the one in which it must have been written. This was my introduction to Marilynne Robinson and she is already my hero. Buy - and savor - this book!

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Nikki Rhodes, July 28, 2008 (view all comments by Nikki Rhodes)
Robinson's prose is so light you can sort of fly through it, not with regard to speed but just to the physical feeling of reading this book. While you get wrapped up in the characters, like any story, the writing here is the main attraction for me. It's enough to make me look at more of Robinson's work.
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780374153892
Subtitle:
A Novel
Author:
Robinson, Marilynne
Author:
Jerome, Tim
Publisher:
Picador
Location:
New York
Subject:
General
Subject:
Fathers and sons
Subject:
Clergy
Subject:
General Fiction
Subject:
Literary
Subject:
Christian fiction
Subject:
Domestic fiction
Copyright:
Edition Number:
1st ed.
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Publication Date:
November 2004
Binding:
Electronic book text in proprietary or open standard format
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Illustrations:
7 cds, 9 hours
Pages:
256
Dimensions:
8.29 x 5.49 x 0.7 in

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Related Subjects

Featured Titles » Pulitzer Prize Winners
Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z
Fiction and Poetry » Literature » Featured Titles
Religion » Western Religions » Religious Fiction

Gilead: A Novel Used Hardcover
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Product details 256 pages Farrar Straus Giroux - English 9780374153892 Reviews:
"Staff Pick" by ,

A story about faith, love, history and growing old, this book is poignant and lovely. It is a long letter from a father who thinks he is soon to die, to his seven-year-old son. Robinson's command of language, her deep understanding of humanity, and her own religious study come together in this outstanding novel. It was worth the twenty-year wait.

"Review A Day" by , "There is a balm in Gilead, and I hope many people find it. For a country dazzled by literary and military pyrotechnics, this quiet new novel from Marilynne Robinson couldn't be less compatible with the times — or more essential....There are passages here of such profound, hard-won wisdom and spiritual insight that they make your own life seem richer....Gilead [is] a quiet, deep celebration of life that you must not miss." (read the entire Christian Science Monitor review)
"Review A Day" by , "[N]early every sentence demands to be savored....There has been much talk lately about a religious divide in this country. Gilead, then, may be the perfect book at the perfect time: a deeply empathetic and complex picture of a religious person that is also gorgeously written, and fascinating." (read the entire Esquire review)
"Review A Day" by , "Gilead is an almost otherworldly book. Its characters are, to a one, good people trying to do right. Obviously a work of enormous integrity, it feels different in kind from the work of writers who produce a book every couple of years, rushing to meet alimony payments, one imagines, or wanting to renovate kitchens. One senses none of the rub of greed informing the writing of the book — but because it lacks the mess of life poking up from the bottom, one is also left without the urgency of fiction." (read the entire Atlantic Monthly review)
"Review" by , "[A] second novel that, however quiet in tone and however delicate of step, will do no less than...break your heart....[A] novel as big as a nation, as quiet as thought, and moving as prayer. Matchless and towering."
"Review" by , "[A] work of profound beauty and wonder....Millennia of philosophical musings and a century of American history are refracted through the prism of Robinson's exquisite and uplifting novel as she illuminates the heart of a mystic, poet, and humanist."
"Review" by , "[R]eligious, somewhat essayistic and fiercely calm....Gilead is a beautiful work — demanding, grave and lucid."
"Synopsis" by , In 1956, toward the end of Rev. John Ames's life, he begins a letter to his young son, an account of himself and his forebears. This is also the tale of wisdom forged during his solitary life and how history lives through generations, pervasively present even when betrayed and forgotten.
"Synopsis" by ,
The 2004 Pulitzer Prize winning novel

A New York Times Top-Ten Book of 2004

Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction

Nearly 25 years after Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson returns with an intimate tale of three generations, from the Civil War to the 20th century: a story about fathers and sons and the spiritual battles that still rage at Americas heart. In the words of Kirkus, it is a novel “as big as a nation, as quiet as thought, and moving as prayer. Matchless and towering.” GILEAD tells the story of America and will break your heart.

"Synopsis" by ,
Twenty-four years after her first novel, Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson returns with an intimate tale of three generations from the Civil War to the twentieth century: a story about fathers and sons and the spiritual battles that still rage at America's heart. Writing in the tradition of Emily Dickinson and Walt 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.
 
Gilead is the winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
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