Gilead is a Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Marilynne Robinson. The book has been around for some time, published in 2004. I remember people talking about it, but I missed it then. Perhaps you did, too. It is the story of a pastor of a small church in Gilead, Iowa, John Ames. He is the son and the grandson of Congregationalist pastors.

After spending most of his adult life as a widower, he finds love late in life and marries a much younger woman. The two have a happy marriage and become parents to a much-loved little son, Robby. The Reverend Ames is not in good physical condition, the result of a bad heart. Since he fears that he will not live to see his son grow up, he decides to write him a letter to be read when Robby is an adult. As readers it is our privilege to hear the words he writes to his son. It is a letter full of wisdom, humor, and love. His emphasis is on fathers and sons and the complicated and beautiful relationships they can experience. He tells about his grandfather, a radical abolitionist and about his father, a pacifist. As he records his memories, he weaves a tale that is quiet and gentle and profound. Ames is aware that he has little time left, and he takes the opportunity to celebrate the people he has known and cared for and the experiences that have made up his life. He wants his focus to be on that which is beautiful in an “ordinary” life.

Ames enjoys the time he has to spend with Robby and with his wife, watching from the porch as Robby plays with friends or his wife works in her garden. He also enjoys the companionship of his oldest friend, Robert Boughton, a retired Presbyterian minister. The two have been friends since childhood, and they have shared lots of good and bad times together. As the story moves on there is a disturbance in Ames’ quiet life. The son of Robert Boughton, Jack, returns to Gilead. He was a problem in the community as a child, and caused his family and John Ames untold grief and embarrassment through the years. Now he has returned, seeking some kind of forgiveness and restoration. This causes Pastor Ames a good bit of anxiety, because he finds it difficult to forgive Jack, particularly for the hurt that he has caused his father. He begins to worry about Jack’s influence on little Robby and even on his wife. Ames knows that he must forgive, and his struggle is profound.

This is a captivating story about truly seeing people and loving them as they are. It is about seeing the world for what it is and finding beauty in the commonplace. But mostly it is about love, kindness, forgiveness and mercy. Marilynne Robinson is a wonderful writer, and she certainly works her magic with words here. Listen for a moment:

“I’m writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you’ve done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle. You may not remember me very well at all, and it may seem to you to be no great thing to have been the good child of an old man in a shabby little town you will no doubt leave behind. If only I had the words to tell you.”

“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”

“Grace has a grand laughter in it.”

This is such an amazing book. I cannot even imagine how the author could weave such a beautiful tale, so full of joy and grace. If you have not read Gilead, do yourself a favor. Acquaint yourself with John Ames and Robert Boughton. Read the book slowly, and savor it. It is worth it.

After you have read Gilead, treat yourself again with another Marilynne Robinson book, Home. Home is set in the same place and time as Gilead. It is told from the perspective of Robert Boughton’s daughter who has come home to care for her father who is in failing health. You might think that it would be repetitive and cover too much of the same ground as Gilead, but surprisingly it does not. It is a story that stands entirely on its own. But it has the same quiet wisdom as the earlier book. The two books together are a real treat.