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?