The wait since 1981 and Housekeeping is over. Robinson returns with a second novel that, however quiet in tone and however delicate of step, will do no less than tell the story of America—and break your heart.
A reverend in tiny Gilead, Iowa, John Ames is 74, and his life is at its best—and at its end. Half a century ago, Ames’s first wife died in childbirth, followed by her new baby daughter, and Ames, seemingly destined to live alone, devoted himself to his town, church, and people—until the Pentecost Sunday when a young stranger named Lila walked into the church out of the rain and, from in back, listened to Ames’s sermon, then returned each Sunday after. The two married—Ames was 67—had a son, and life began all over again. But not for long. In the novel’s present (mid-1950s), Ames is suffering from the heart trouble that will soon bring his death. And so he embarks upon the writing of a long diary, or daily letter—the pages of Gilead—addressed to his seven-year-old son so he can read it when he’s grown and know not only about his absent father but his own history, family, and heritage. And what a letter it is! Not only is John Ames the most kind, observant, sensitive, and companionable of men to spend time with, but his story reaches back to his patriarchal Civil War great-grandfather, fiery preacher and abolitionist; comes up to his grandfather, also a reverend and in the War; to his father; and to his own life, spent in his father’s church. This long story of daily life in deep Middle America—addressed to an unknown and doubting future—is never in the slightest way parochial or small, but instead it evokes on the pulse the richest imaginable identifying truths of what America was.
Robinson has composed, with its cascading perfections of symbols, a novel as big as a nation, as quiet as thought, and moving as prayer. Matchless and towering.