OutreachNC’s 2020 Book Club – Gilead

Our second book of 2020 is truly inspiring. It was, for many of us, a slow read. Robinson’s novel, a letter from a pastor reaching the end of life to his young son, doesn’t have the pacing of a thriller or the page-turning structure of a romance, and for that we are grateful. We need books like Gilead to remind us how beautiful a slower pace is, how lovely it is to sit with well-written sentences and really get inside the head of a character rather than brace for another plot twist. 

Here are 10 Things About Gilead:

1. Taking us back to the 1950s, Robinson’s novel is the story of men: young men, old men, soldiers, fathers, sons (prodigal and otherwise), pastors, sinners and sometimes-saints. Robinson, a woman, does a spectacular job of allowing the reader to forget she is, in fact, a woman at all. I’m always shocked when a writer is able to do that, to tell a story regardless of gender, race, time or place. Robinson does it beautifully. Page 75 offers an example: “There was a full moon outside my window, icy white in a blue sky, and the Cubs were playing Cincinnati.” Isn’t that just what a man might say? 

2. Speaking of men, Robinson’s protagonist Reverend John Ames writes often about his own father and grandfather. Of his grandfather, he writes, “He said he knew then that he had to come to Kansas and make himself useful to the cause of abolition. To be useful was the best thing the old men ever hoped for themselves, and to be aimless was their worst fear” (p. 81-82). I think there are many men now, today, who might understand this sentiment and nod in agreement. 

3. It might be tempting to think a letter from a pastor to his son might shed a man of the cloth in the very best light, might be full of wisdom and thoughtful life lessons. While Robinson’s tale certainly includes these sentiments, John Ames is also flawed, which makes his character richer and, ultimately, more likable. We can, as readers and fellow flawed humans, connect with him, which means we care. To care about a character is the best part of enjoying a novel. 

4. Robinson has actually written a trilogy or series of books including Home (Book 2) and Lila (Book 3). We hear they’re all excellent, and we’re tempted to shut ourselves away in a cabin near a flowing river one weekend and binge-read them all. 

5. Jeeves particularly appreciated the featuring of a feline friend in this novel, even if that cat was dragged around by little boys. Jeeves gives Gilead a solid 4.5 stars, as he too appreciates meandering, slowly unfolding beauty. 

6. On page 230 Ames writes to his son about the tragic ubiquity of the “molded salad of orange gelatin with stuffed green olives and shredded cabbage and anchovies that has dogged my ministerial life these last years….” This reminds me of my childhood and a similar molded green gelatin salad with cottage cheese and pineapple. What is it with religion and molded gelatin? 

7. We would all be well-served to remember what Ames writes to his son, a piece of advice passed down through the men of his family: “This is an important thing, which I have told many people, and which my father told me, and which his father told him. When you encounter another person, when you have dealings with anyone at all, it is as if a question is being put to you. So you must think, What is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation?” (p. 197). 

8. There is conflict and tension woven throughout Ames’ story, which keeps readers on our toes, wondering what happened all those years ago, where the truth lies and if there is resolution on the horizon. Robinson’s added texture never overshadows the bigger picture but only adds dimension. 

9. I want to write this on a sticky note and put it on my bathroom mirror: “Our dream of life will end as dreams do end, abruptly and completely, when the sun rises, when the light comes. And we will think, All that fear and all that grief were about nothing” (p. 166). 

10. No matter your feelings on religion, there is something in this book for all readers. There is beauty in the writing, thoughtfulness in the message and curiosity in the plotting. The pacing is on-point, and we hope whomever chooses to read it comes away with a tilted chin, pondering one or another aspect of this lovely life we’re honored to live. 

We love sharing books with everyone and anyone who’s got a review, comment, thought, critique or favorite quote to send along. Feel free to write to us at editor@outreachnc.com and let us know your thoughts on Robinson’s novel and her thoughtful, wise protagonist.