Book - 2004
Average Rating:
Rate this:

A NOVEL THAT READERS and critics have been eagerly anticipating for over a decade, Gilead is an astonishingly imagined story of remarkable lives. John Ames is a preacher, the son of a preacher and the grandson (both maternal and paternal) of preachers. It's 1956 in Gilead, Iowa, towards the end of the Reverend Ames's life, and he is absorbed in recording his family's story, a legacy for the young son he will never see grow up. Haunted by his grandfather's presence, John tells of the rift between his grandfather and his father: the elder, an angry visionary who fought for the abolitionist cause, and his son, an ardent pacifist. He is troubled, too, by his prodigal namesake, Jack (John Ames) Boughton, his best friend's lost son who returns to Gilead searching for forgiveness and redemption. Told in John Ames's joyous, rambling voice that finds beauty, humour and truth in the smallest of life's details, Gilead is a song of celebration and acceptance of the best and the worst the world has to offer. At its heart is a tale of the sacred bonds between fathers and sons, pitch-perfect in style and story, set to dazzle critics and readers alike.

Publisher: Toronto : HarperCollins, c2004
Edition: 1st Canadian ed
ISBN: 9780002005883
Branch Call Number: F ROB
Characteristics: 247 p. ; 22 cm


From the critics

Community Activity


Add a Comment
Jan 14, 2019

One of a kind. I was unprepared for the book (denominations of Protestants, Old Testament).
With restrained passion, intermittent suffocation even guilt, I felt an ultimate inward joy (not pertinent to a religious awakening) from the prose. I wanted to admire John Ames, the saint, but his self-righteousness should also be forgiven.
I may not read another book written by her or even rich in theology soon. But the book opens a window for me to peek into American History in a unique style, it also bridges between others' God and my (atheistic) faith.

JCLMandaW Dec 14, 2018

I wanted to like it, I really did.

RogerDeBlanck Jul 24, 2018

Gilead chronicles the life of John Ames, a seventy year-old preacher, dying of heart disease. The novel takes place in the small town of Gilead, Iowa, and the narrative is written from Ames’s perspective as he undertakes an extended letter to his seven year-old son. The contents of the letters take on the nature of self-revelatory prayers from the deeply religious Ames, whose voice conveys more than remembrances, reflections, and advice. His ideas also begin to reveal a developing story focused on Ames’s concerns and suspicions about his namesake, his best friend’s son, named John Jack Boughton. Jack clings to a secret of tremendous moral proportions. In addition, the novel examines three generations of ministers in the Ames’s family. But the resonant power of the book plays out in the beauty of Robinson’s language. Her passages brim with intense spiritual intuitiveness and immense wisdom. Gilead is a towering achievement of modern literature. It is the type of book destined to be a classic.

May 26, 2018

A deeply empathetic masterpiece that presents deep devotion encountering vulnerability and uncertainty.

Mar 30, 2018

What happened to the 'amazing prose' she was able to write for Housekeeping?

Sep 05, 2016

Yes, yes, and yes again. A lovely book constructed with care and beauty. Gives hope to the world that a writer produces a book such as this.

Mar 12, 2016

John Ames, a preacher in the small town of Gilead, Iowa believes he doesn’t have long to live so he writes a series of letters to his young son. Ames asks “What should I record for you? … And what else should I tell you?” Ames’ letters end up being a different type of instruction than he initially intended. The letters start off aimless and inconsistent but gain focus as Ames turns more introspective. All those years of writing his sermons, “trying to say what was true”, leaves him unprepared for his own moral crisis. He recognizes it as such, wondering what he would tell a parishioner that came to him with the same problems.

Ames weaves together current events in his life with the history of his father and grandfather, both of them preachers as well. In going back over his family history, Ames describes the role of religion in settling the Midwestern states as well the personal role of religion in the inhabitants’ lives. All of this history ultimately narrows to the role of faith and grace in Ames’ own life. His good friend’s son, John Ames Boughton (Jack), returns to Gilead ostensibly to take care of his father. Ames initially believes Jack plans to continue his life-long vexation of his family as well as Ames, but through much thought and prayer he looks at Jack with a perspective of grace. "I could forget all the tedious particulars and just feel the presence of his mortal and immortal being...He did then seem to be the angel of himself, brooding over the mysteries his mortal life describes, the deep things of man.” This soothes Ames, not just from his own standpoint but also because of prevenient grace, “which precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it.”

"It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor grey ember of Creation and it turns to radiance -- for a moment or a year or the span of a life." This transformation, of hope to realization or maybe also from ordinary to extraordinary, includes what Marilynne Robinson has done with John Ames' life.

Jan 02, 2016

Well worth the "listen." Beautifully written. Deep insight into personalities.

Nov 25, 2015

This is my third reading in about six years. The first melted me into nothing, and the second stood up quite well. This time I was a little disappointed - yeah, the person who said it left them feeling richer and better is right, but some of what was beautiful the first two times felt... flat? Trite? Shallow. I was less convinced. Still beautiful, but cheaper. And the racism is harder to ignore. One of the main threads of the novel doesn't work unless you accept that only some kind of saint could love a black woman. I recommended it with warnings previously, and now I don't know if I can even do that. (That said, the rhythm and texture of the prose is so lovely, and the successful bits of religion-and-family feeling so potent, I will likely read this again in a few years. Maybe. I don't know. Probably.)

Oct 21, 2015

This is my second reading of "Gilead," which I read about 6-8 years ago. I 've recently read Robinson's first novel, "Housekeeping," her fourth, "Lila," and the third, "Home." The first one is a stand-alone, but the other three are about the same set of people, though not strictly a trilogy. All her novels are almost completely character-driven. Readers who find that "nothing happens" are right, in a way. Yet a great deal happens, inside people's heads, as they grow and change. The elderly, ill Ames is writing a letter for his young son to read when he grows up, to give him the fatherly wisdom he won't be there to impart. But then his best friend's favorite son, always a thorn in his own side, comes home after 20 years away. This provides a huge frustration, ultimately teaching Ames a new lesson in forgiveness. It's amazing, humorous, and comforting, that when he finally learns the young man's truth, he finds forgiveness easy. The writing is fluid and beautiful, all the characters are well-rounded, and the relationships matter. Ms. Robinson does an amazing job writing in the voice of an elderly man.

View All Comments

Age Suitability

Add Age Suitability
Apr 09, 2014

sandra_src thinks this title is suitable for 12 years and over


Add a Summary
Feb 21, 2011

an intimate tale of three generations, from the Civil War to the 20th century: a story about fathers and sons and the spiritual battles that still rage at America's heart


Add Notices

There are no notices for this title yet.


Add a Quote

There are no quotes for this title yet.

Explore Further

Browse by Call Number

Subject Headings


Find it at RPL

To Top