Summer Reading Recommendation: Gilead and Home

Gilead-Photo-1Marilynne Robinson’s popular and critically acclaimed novels, Gilead and Home are masterpieces that deftly explore deep metaphysical questions with characters who search for meaning and redemption through Christian faith, engaging with issues of spiritual longing and fulfillment in a way that few modern American authors do.  Gilead and Home are really companion pieces that should be read together; at their combined heart, they paint an astounding portrait of grace in human existence: Gilead by displaying the utter beneficence of the grace that overflows creation and Home by portraying our human inability to enter this reality fully.

The novels focus on two ministers in the small country town of Gilead, Iowa, close friends since their childhood who are now approaching the end of their lives.  Gilead takes the form of a long letter that the 76-year old Rev. John Ames composes to his young son born of a late marriage – about his lifelong faith, the complicated love between fathers and sons, and the return of his own best friend’s son to the town.  Home revisits this same time and place, but from the perspective of Glory, a 38-year-old woman who has come home to take care of her dying father, the Rev. Robert Boughton.  They are joined by Jack, the wayward son returning after twenty years of self-imposed exile from his family.  From these differing angles, both novels engage with the profound narrative of the grace offered to the prodigal son.

Gilead boldly portrays the radical blessing conferred by grace; in incandescent prose, John Ames tells his story with the deepest conviction of the profound goodness of life, the need to bless all who have been graced to live, and his struggle to extend this grace in forgiveness to Jack Boughton.  At the end of life, he is amazed by and thankful for the blessings that have covered the aches and losses of life: “I do not remember grief and loneliness so much as I do peace and comfort — grief, but never without comfort; loneliness, but never without peace.” Gilead is awash in a luminous grace that overflows and heals the limitations of human existence, and that resolution, seen by both Ames and the reader, provides hope and comfort.

robinson homeWhile Gilead offers balm, however, Home uncovers wounds; as Sarah Churchwell writes, “where Gilead offers benediction, Home offers only valediction.”[1]  Through the rebellion and return of Jack Boughton, the book asks, “Can we really come home?”  In the very mundane, familiar world of the Boughtons’ house, the slow and gentle prose reveals Glory, Jack, and their father as they struggle to overcome disappointments and failures and tentatively attempt restoration. Yet, human sorrow, isolation, and frailty never quite allow these characters, especially Jack, to receive the grace and love they so badly need to make them whole, and a spiritual home seems out of reach. With no clear resolution, Home achingly depicts our struggle to receive the grace that awaits us.

Which novel is more powerful?  Although both novels are exquisitely moving, I preferred Home.   By tenderly exploring human frailty without offering complete resolution, Home reveals even more powerfully the truly radical nature of grace.  In this book, as in life, there are people (or places within us) that seem impervious to grace’s outreach.  Sometimes, divine love and healing may only be received “outside the narrative” – by a love that transcends our weakness, sin, or self-rejection.  Robinson actually hints at this possibility: in a story in which no one gets saved, there is a hope that is not explicit but profound nonetheless.

At the end of Home, as Glory watches Jack go, she asks herself, “who will bother to be kind to him”? and then sees him  in terms of the famous description of Jesus as “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and as one from whom men hide their face”.  The book hints that it is only through our Savior’s identification with the broken and exiled that our estrangement may be overcome – and it is through this that we will receive grace and comfort, even if we can’t seem to find our way home.

Somer Salomon has an MLitt in Theology, Imagination, and the Arts from the University of St. Andrews, as well as an MA in English Literature from Middlebury College. She currently teaches 11th grade English at a public charter school in Washington, DC, one of her favorite jobs in a varied career path that has included working for an economic development corporation , at a dot.com, and on a horse farm.


[1] Sara Churchwell, “A Man of Sorrows,” The Guardian.  3 October 2008. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/oct/04/fiction

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4 Comments

  • Bob says:

    This is an excellent review and thanks for it. I have for a long time meant to read Gilead and this review has nudged me to read it and Home soon. One quick question. Your quote at the end of the review of Jesus as a “man of sorrows…” I can’t tell where that quote is from–is it from Home itelf? You mention a “famous description of Jesus” and I don’t know if that is from somewhere else. Why I ask is because I found that language very sad and very powerful and definitely worth remembering. And thanks again for your review.

    Bob

  • Somer says:

    Dear Bob,

    Thanks for your comment; I appreciate it and your question. I perhaps could have been a bit clearer in my quote about the “man of sorrows”. In Home, Glory looks at Jack as he is getting ready to leave Gilead and thinks of him as: “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and as one from whom men hide their face. Ah, Jack.” Although the words are in quotes – they are not attributed to a specific source. But the source is Isaiah 53:3: “He was despised and rejected by mankind; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief. And like one from whom men hide their face He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.” This Old Testament verse (actually the whole chapter) is widely thought to be a prophecy of the coming Messiah (as the “Suffering Servant”) – and thus is often seen as fulfilled by Jesus’ earthly life – and so often used to describe Jesus. Thus, with these words Robinson implicitly (and oh so poignantly) collides Jack, the man of sorrows, with Jesus, the man of sorrows – and, I believe, implies that Jesus takes on Jack’s suffering through is own. Hope this helps – and enjoy reading the books!

    • Bob says:

      Thanks very much Somer. I appreciate your response. I went and read Isaiah 53 and I see what you say. Ms. Robinson certainly did borrow the words you reference from there (pretty powerful words to me) and thanks for putting that in context. Figuring that it isn’t critical to read Gilead first (and I’m sure not a problem in any event), I’ve ordered Home from Amazon based on how you described your preference. This looks very good to me. Thanks.

      Bob

  • Bob says:

    Well, having now read Home, I can see what you meant when you used the words “mundane world” and the “slow and gentle prose” of the novel. I at first was waiting for more “action” to happen but when I settled into the realization that that wasn’t going to occur, I much more appreciated that Ms. Robinson was writing about life as it truly happens, the day to day interactions of the three lead family members trying to navigate what was a momentous return for all three of them. And, while I appreciated the prodigal son aspect of the story (from Jack’s viewpoint and that of his father), I really came to appreciate more Glory and her story. To me, Jack and his father were so lucky that she was there for each of them in ways they each needed. She was quite an anchor.

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