Growing up in Iowa, surrounded by acres of cornfields, soybeans and generation farmsteads, I developed a deep appreciation for the wide open and unfettered. In the morning the dewed horizon would unfurl in orderly rows broken only by hay bales, silos and the occasional stalled tractor. And in the evenings, when it was fully dark and these landmarks disappeared, I would drive out in the country, stretching myself as far from home as the roads would allow, never coming around until the last moment when thoughts of flight grew into to a longing to return.
The path was always straight before me, and I drew a guilty comfort from it, envisioning an undeviating life, seeing my own apparition along the shoulder as the headlights weakly muscled their way through the damp, draped landscape, as sure a landmark as any silo, and as unmoving.
Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is much the same; it is an unbending, unbroken letter to a son from a father who seeks redemption from sins unknown, even to himself, and an explanation for a life left mostly unspoken. It painstakingly plows through the hills and valleys of a stationary life, never veering from the stark truth and imposing a seeming structure on something as unruly as the plains of a heart.
John Ames, the novel’s narrator, is at times unsure just what kind of heart he possesses. He preaches the word of the Lord to the small town of Gilead, Iowa; his destiny lies in divinity, but unlike his father, unlike his generations of pulpit-pounders stretching behind him, he finds God not in fire and brimstone but within himself and the townsfolk he’s known all his life.
It’s a quiet life, lived without incident. It is only when confronted with his end, seeing a wife decades younger and a small son who he fears will never know him that he realizes he never really knew himself. From this grows a beautifully beseeching letter, ostensibly to his son but ultimately to himself that searches out his contours and defines the decisions made and desires left suspended in limbo.
Robinson’s style is infinitely gentle, tenderly carrying the reader through the story by allowing us to be the wind that wraps around these broken people, this lonely place. We ephemerally meander through the action of the story, and are invited to become a breeze that people lift their faces to and close their eyes against in supplication. The convention of writing in first person narrative, of structuring the novel as a half-written, half-lived letter provides us great perspective; we can see the context of situations from high above. Sometimes, though, it puts us at too great a remove to clearly discern the edges.
At times I wished for the kind of sudden, violent storm the plains are prone to; the wind cracking, battering the earth in an attempt to alter the geography of fate. But this isn’t that kind of story, and Robinson isn’t that kind of writer. In the end, the greatest unearthing is Ames’ understanding of his place in the world, and acceptance of the fragile heart he has nurtured within.
Ames found the same guilty comfort as I did in those solitary country nights. But he learned to slough off the guilt and firmly dug in his roots, tenaciously clinging to his own patch of ground. His epistle does not ask for absolution, and he makes no apologies for his proscribed life. Unlike Ames, never one to accept that this is where I’m meant to be, I’ve become like the loess of western Iowa; scattered by the wind and drifting briefly to a stop until the next breath of fate blows me along. And yet, a part of me is still on those back roads, insubstantial of form, wavering along the edges, standing silent sentry until at last I begin the return home to myself.