Gilead, is abook about fathers and sons, where Housekeeping by Robinson was a book about girls and women, and fragmentary where one of Housekeeping's achievements was its fluid narrative completeness, takes an opposing narratorial position with a protagonist whose insider credentials could not be stronger. In Genesis, in the story of Joseph, Gilead is the casually mentioned place left behind by the merchants who bought Joseph from his brothers. Robinson's Gilead is a small American town in Iowa in 1956. John Ames, a preacher in his mid-70s whose heart is failing him, is writing letters to his only child, now aged six, so that when the boy reaches an adulthood his father won't see, he'll at least have this posthumous one-sided conversation: "While you read this, I am imperishable, somehow more alive than I have ever been." Ames is descended from preachers. He is old, vaguely Republican, delightfully lifeloving, sententious and irritatingly given to homily. He can on the one hand make water sound miraculous and on the other make a reader as nervous and fidgety as a long morning in church. He records, for his son, the details of an everyday life and his own stories of his pacifist father and abolitionist grandfather who could rouse a crowd to a "good" moral war; these stories are among the most vivid in the novel. Meanwhile, in the idyllic-seeming backwater, unaddressed and troubling issues of poverty and race emerge - though so gently as to be near invisible - especially when Ames's surrogate son, a traditional "bad lot", comes back to Gilead and circumstances invite comparison between 1950s social unacceptability and the abolitionist fervour of only a couple of generations ago. To say more here about the story would be to rip through something Robinson takes care to deliver with spider-web fineness.
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