“Gilead was the kind of town where dogs slept in the road for the sun and the warmth that lingered after the sun was gone, and the few cars that there were had to stop and honk until the dogs decided to get up and let them pass by. They’d go limping off to the side, lamed by the comfort they’d had to give up, and then they’d settle down again right where they were before. It really wasn’t much of a town.”
This is the setting for Robinson’s Iowa trilogy, three novels that span a century of our history. Gilead (2004), Home (2008) and Lila, Robinson’s new book, center on the lives of two ministers—John Ames and Robert Boughton—and their families. Much of the narrative is set during the 1950s, but it also harks back to the 1850s and some of the years in between. In many ways, this is a quintessentially American story: set in the deepest Midwest, peopled by humble characters, centered on family, driven by hope. The Great Plains are at the heart of the American foundation myth of Manifest Destiny, which declared our God-given entitlement to this fertile terrain. This land was our land, so we were told. Agriculture would be our connection to the landscape and to prosperity. Here, our souls could take root and our lives flourish.
Gilead is a safe, domesticated place where people work in their gardens and hang out their wash. Children swing in the backyard and swim in the river. The Rev. John Ames, who has trouble sleeping, often walks alone through the moonlight to his small church, where he sits in the darkness, waiting for dawn. There is no sense of physical danger here; the most powerful conflicts are intellectual, emotional and moral.
Violent conflict was a part of the region’s past, however, and it figures prominently in the Ames family’s history. Just before the Civil War, Kansas was a territory poised on the brink of statehood, and the question of whether it should be a free or slave state became an incendiary one. “Free Soilers” flocked there to oppose slavery, and the small towns of Iowa became unofficial garrisons for the combatants and stations on the Underground Railroad. Armed militias roamed the countryside, and the mild, arable landscape became a bloody proving ground. Ames’s wild and visionary grandfather moved in the 1830s from Maine to Kansas, where he shot a man during the “Free Soil” period, despite being a minister. His son John, also a minister but a devout pacifist, was unable to reconcile himself to the actions of his father. John’s son Edward (our John’s brother) is unable to reconcile his religious views with those of his father: conflict between generations is prominent throughout the trilogy.
Gilead is largely the story of the third Rev. Ames, a gentle, thoughtful and devout Congregationalist minister. He lost both his wife and daughter during childbirth, early in his first marriage, and lived for years as a widower. In his late 60s, he marries a younger woman named Lila, and unexpectedly they have a child. Gilead is Ames’s letter to their 6-year-old son, whose adulthood he assumes he won’t live to see. (The letter is to be read after Ames’s death.) Ames reveals himself to be an archetypal loving father, the one we long for: tolerant, wise and patient. He sees the world through a lens of humility and gratitude. He is grateful for his beautiful young wife and for his son. He is grateful for the tangible beauty of the physical world and the deep, intangible beauty of the human heart. He is grateful for his vocation, for the opportunity to give his life to the consideration of the spirit. He strives to be worthy of the grace of God, whom he knows as compassionate, tender and loving.