Christine Strelan - Between the Covers


Marilynne Robinson

Virago 2004

An aging clergyman, who has lived his whole life in a small town in rural Iowa, learns that his heart is failing. He writes a letter to the young son he will leave behind, describing his life and that of his father and grandfather, also ministers. You might think this would make dry, dull reading; preacher-men dont usually get to be heroes, in either fiction or movies. Gilead, however, will surprise anyone who perceives men of the cloth as bloodless tea-drinkers.

The Reverend John Ames is certainly a mild-mannered, well-behaved man, but beneath his collar he is a joyful, passionate spirit: Each morning Im like Adam waking up in Eden, amazed at the cleverness of my hands and at the brilliance pouring into my mind through my eyes old hands, old eyes, old mind, a very diminished Adam altogether, and still it is just remarkable.

A true follower of Christ, he is a tolerant, compassionate pacifist. When he quotes the Bible, its the poetic or philosophical verses he prefers. His faith is full of questions and there is nothing dogmatic or fundamentalist in his belief.

His grandfather, on the other hand, was a much more volatile, aggressive preacher. He seemed to me stricken and afflicted, and indeed he was, like a man everlastingly struck by lightning, so that there was an ashiness about his clothes and his hair never settled and his eye had a look of tragic alarm.

Robinson is an exceptionally good writer, using everyday details and small events to illuminate the Big Issues. Gilead is about love more than anything else; between men and women, and especially between fathers and sons. Ames is a decent, intelligent man who has devoted his life to a calling which many people now consider anachronistic or even destructive. Most of us have probably never wondered how it feels to baptise a child, or give Holy Communion, and Robinson depicts these experiences with mystical intensity. On top of everything else, there are some pretty good theological jokes.

Most moving of all are Gileads meditations on death: ...our dream of life will end as dreams do end, abruptly and completely, when the sun rises, when the light comes. And we will think, all that fear and all that grief were about nothing.

Books reviewed are available at the Book Warehouse in Keen Street, Lismore, and at Lismore Shopping Square.

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