The first good snow of the season on our Crepe Myrtle

I was weeping before 8:30 am. Not because of the cold and old pipes and our living room soaked, stripped, and drying now–like a child pulled from a furtive dip in the lake. No, I was weeping over a book about fathers and sons and the seasons of life–and wouldn’t you think my avid reader-cynicism could have borne me up better than that? Nope, there I was weeping, listening to the end of the story, as I trained my eyes on the winding roads that take me from my sons’ school to home and back, again and again.

Not a chance I could have held it together in the face of Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead, narrated by Tim Jerome of Broadway fame. From the cursory Goodreads summary: Gilead presents an “intimate tale of three generations from the Civil War to the twentieth century: a story about fathers and sons and the spiritual battles that still rage at America’s heart.”

I will admit right here that it took me this long to read anything by the matriarch of the Midwestern religious novel, and I’ll tell you why. I thought it would be not just “churchy”–an attribute Robinson has said did not define her background–but preachy. After reading (and weeping), I’d define the novel as “teachy” maybe, but only in the best way–as the narrative is presented as a sort of last will and testament from an elderly father, the Reverend John Ames, to the seven-year-old son he won’t get to see grow up. In short, it’s a quiet wonder of a book.

Before I go further: quick survey here for you American fiction fans: what was the last Midwestern book you read? How about the last New York book? That’s easy: for me, Amor Towles’s Rules of Civility and before that Kathleen Rooney’s Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk. California novel? Easy again: me, a wonderful novella that echoed Steinbeck as it held a mirror up to our current U.S. culture: Camp Olvido by Lawrence Coates. Full disclosure: my WIP is set in California–so even my mind’s eye resides elsewhere. Midwestern books? Hmm? Crickets…in winter at that.

But, seriously, to make a conscious effort to seek out the books of my native place, the modern Midwest, is one reason I started this blog. To share them with you is another. Still, Gilead’s depiction of life in 1950s rural Iowa does not remind me of home; nor does its Calvinist preacher-as-epistemological narrator remind me of the Catholic Fathers–or dad, for that matter–who I grew up with.

Like many disciplines, a Catholic upbringing is good for writing (not just for the characteristic guilt), as evidenced by authors like C.K. McKenna, Alice McDermott and Ann Patchett, who credits in this article “her Catholic faith for teaching her a boundless capacity for creativity and appreciation for metaphor.”

Christianity in general provides us with another language, which doubles the meaning of just about any element you can name: fire isn’t just fire; water isn’t just water; bread isn’t just bread; even life is doubled. In Gilead, it is no accident that the narrator sees his wife for the first time on Pentecost. Names and days and even everyday language become imbued with alternative meaning–even if you don’t mean for them to. A burst pipe and water raining down on my head: are we talking plain plumbing or some kind of baptism? (No symbolism to see here, folks.)

Can a father be only a father? A son just a son? Or is the everyday weighed down by religious symbolism? What reader wants bogged-down story? Not this one. Here’s where Robinson excels: instead of weighing down everyday stories in the spiritual, Robinson’s talent lies in lifting up the mundane–or, as critic Braillen Hopper says, “She evokes the hope of heaven in the everyday…”

Hope is what got to me on that cold morning, what melted me to tears. It’s a hope that lifts up the everyday relationship between fathers and sons and mothers and daughters–my own and my characters’ own–to a higher place. Even if that place is only in our minds. Among us cynics, who can root against hope?

In that vein, I continue (hopefully) querying agents about my WWII-era historical novel, a story about fathers and sons and whole families and neighborhoods and towns whose hope is tested by war–not only the one waged between Axis and Allied powers but between neighbors and friends here at home.

Querying? Submitting to journals and magazines? I hope you’ll check out my posts on publishing, in the category of the same name. Looking for your next read? I’ve reviewed something for everyone. Looking for writerly advice? Let me know how it goes!

What are you writing? What are you reading? What are you hoping for this cold winter?




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16 thoughts on “Of Fathers, Sons, and Seasons: Reading Marilynne Robinson’s GILEAD

    1. Definitely was outside my normal read–and really probably not for everyone. Something of a miracle that an epistemological novel about theology and the relationships between fathers and sons (prodigal and otherwise) through generations could win the Pulitzer. Can you even imagine trying to query that book? Also, I realize that listening to the audio (especially with Jerome’s smooth-as-silk voice) makes for a different experience than reading it, which I will be doing, too. Thanks for stopping by! I’ll be checking out your site soon for historical recommendations…

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  1. Becky, I will have to see if our very limited library here has Gilead….it sounds very good! Obviously, I do not read every blog you send out……I was sooooo sorry to read about your broken pipe and flooded living room! That is such a mess…..experience speaking! I surely hope you have been able to get it cleaned up and repaired. I am sure this winter has been especially bad for pipes. Freezing temperatures are why we now have our pipes com- pletely drained before leaving for SC every year.

    Aside from that, we hope all is well with all of you. We’re looking forward to having your dad here for the second week in March….he’s always so easy to have, no fuss or great planning. Martina is coming the week before him. We’ve been here since Jan, 15 after delaying a day while at Cay’s so a big snow storm could pass off the coast…..you must have gotten some of it. We got such a kick out of driving through D.C. the next day and seeing over a foot of snow on the lawns, etc. That must have been a real mess, but we had no trouble driving right through. Since here, we’ve been doing a lot of getting settled and reading……nice to relax! It’s been cooler than usual, but is supposed to warm up this weekend. On Tuesday, we are headed to Savannah, GA to celebrate our 53rd anniversary.

    Hope you, Eric and the boys are all fine, and the pipes and walls are all repaired. Our love and hugs to all of you, Aunt Elizabeth

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  2. That snow had to be lots of fun for he boys……we drove through D.C. the following day and remarked that it had to have been a zoo on the roads when the storm hit! Your Crepe Myrtle is gorgeous! Hugs, Aunt E.

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  3. I’m adding Gilead to my “Must Read” list. I’ve heard of the book before, but didn’t know what the book was about.

    As far as the last Midwestern books I’ve read, last summer I read two historical romance novels by Minnesota writer, Abbie Williams. I’m also a fan of Minnesota author(s) PJ Tracy (a pseudonym for a mother-daughter writing team, but the mother has recently passed). Their Monkeewrench books are heart-stopping, hilarious, and filled with wit.

    Sounds like Gilead is a Midwestern book that I shouldn’t miss! Great post, Rebecca!

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    1. I hadn’t heard of Abbie Williams or PJ Tracy (wow–I’m always impressed with writing duos) and will have to look them up! I do think you’ll enjoy _Gilead_, maybe especially the audio, as Jerome has such a lovely narration style and voice. Next, I’ll be reading it to see how that compares. Thanks, as always for visiting my blog, and I hope you’re having a wonderful weekend–and warming up!

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  4. You’ve sparked my interest to add the book to my to-read list. My favorite mid-western author is Michael Perry (since the town he writes about is so close to where I live and he’s my age, I can relate to his stories). I’m currently reading Into The Water by Paula Hawkins. I’m not in love with it, but hope by the end it’ll make sense. Happy reading and writing to you! Stay warm and hope the water issues resolve quickly!!!

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    1. There’s always too much to read, I don’t put up with a meh book for long. Hadn’t heard of Michael Perry so I looked him up–he’s got a great blog, seems really funny! Hope your thermometer’s on the upswing. We hit 60-something here yesterday–weird. And our living room’s all dried out. Now to replace the ceiling and wall! Have a great day!

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      1. Yes, there’s always another book on my list to read! I enjoy MP’s humor. It is cold today here, and we’re expecting up to a foot of snow over the next few days. Thank goodness for books to keep me all cozy. Good luck with the ceiling and wall replacement – that’s a big job, been there done that in rentals before! Hope you have a great day too!

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  5. Hi, Rebecca!
    Just starting in on your wonderful blog posts! Marilynne Robinson’s GILEAD I must read (ashamed to say I haven’t yet, and I don’t know why, but maybe for the same reasons you mentioned).
    Thank you for your recommendations of other reads, too. I’ve never heard of Coates, and I do like Rooney but totally forgot about her book.
    As for what I’m reading, well, I’m all over the place. I tend to read flash or short stories, and right now I’m rereading Mary Oliver, sort of taking her books as daily vitamins. Diane Willisms’ latest collection of collected stories, Lydia Davis—oh, and a writer I just discovered whose stories I really liked: Yoko Ogawa.
    Enjoyed this post very much!
    Deb

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    1. Deb, well now I’m feeling shamed because I have to admit I haven’t read much Oliver. I came late to poetry but am reading it–and flash fiction–more and more these days, finding it wonderful inspiration for prose (as I slog along the novel MS-revise-edit-agent query process). Ooo–and I’m going to check out Yoko Ogawa, too. Thanks for checking out my post–much appreciated, an have a wonderful weekend!

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      1. Rebecca, Oliver just died a couple of weeks ago, but she’s originally from Ohio, taught at Bennington a while before moving to Provincetown and then later to Florida. Her poetry is very straightforward (which is why some folks don’t care for it), but I love it, especially because she writes so much about the environment. And … reading her is, for me anyway, akin to meditation, or Zen relaxation!

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