Gilead: Nothing is Small

Yesterday, we sat with friends on the expansive sun-filled patio at Big Lick Brewing Company (biglickbrewingco.com), which is not the worst craft brewery in Roanoke. Tuco’s (tucostaqueria.com), which is not the worst taco joint in Roanoke, is across the street, and we had ordered take-out; sat at one of the tables on the patio; and ate savory food and drank golden beer. It was a gorgeous autumn day, and the mountains ringing this small city were blue. This is Roanoke at its wondrous best.

In Gilead, which won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Marilynne Robinson explores the tempestuous beauty of life. And it is wondrous. Gilead is a fictional small town in Iowa. However, it is small in the same sense that Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County is small – in the same sense that the universe is small. Similarly, Faulkner’s admonishment about the past not being dead or even the the past is equally apt here. And like Faulkner, Robinson does not traffic in trivialities. She draws water from the well’s deepest depths.

The story is a letter from an elderly father, John Ames, to his young son. Ames rightly believes the letter is necessary because he will not live long enough for his son to really know him. Ames has lived his entire life in Gilead and has never desired to live anywhere else. He understands that nothing in life is small – regardless of where you live. Speaking of Gilead, Ames declares “[i]n eternity this world will be Troy . . . and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets.” The people living in Gilead are ordinary, which Robinson understands to mean they are extraordinary. “There have been heroes here, and saints and martyrs.” There have also been villains and lost souls desperately seeking redemption. Relationships are rich and at times fraught. Thoughts are deep. Answers are complicated, if they exist at all.

While the novel’s conceit is a letter, it is really an extended meditation on religion and spirituality. Ames is the son and the grandson of preachers. His best friend is (yes, you guessed it) a preacher. But a life dictated by Christian norms and tenets has not made Ames a lazy thinker, so do not expect to find anything glib, easy, or trite here. Ames states “[i]n the matter of belief, I have always found that defenses have the same irrelevance about them as the criticisms they are meant to answer. I think the attempt to defend belief can unsettle it, in fact, because there is always an inadequacy in argument about ultimate things.” The meaning of life cannot be known. However, regardless of its occasional pettiness and torment, life is miraculous. We can not match the spare beauty of Robinson’s prose on this (or any) topic, so we will give her the last word. We need to “acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm.”

Alison Wonderland, Chief Editor and Adjunct Professor for Student Loans