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Thomas Gardner

This Poor Gray Ember of Creation

Marilynne Robinson's Gilead is a novel to savor

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Both Housekeeping and Gilead could be said to stand against such cultural amnesia by presenting versions of soul-making so remarkably beautiful and individual that one is forced to wonder why we ever let such habits of mind atrophy. Housekeeping does this by reducing its stage to a young girl with a few books and memories and extraordinary eyes; from that, an entire crystalline world grows. Gilead attempts something broader. John Ames has a full life which he looks back on and reads and re-reads, seeing it as a sort of parable whose full meaning he can never confidently grasp. His first wife and child died decades ago, those wilderness years that followed finally being brought to an end with the surprising marriage of his last years. He has made his life in the small Iowa town of Gilead, within striking distance of Kansas. By 1956, when he is writing, the town's importance during the years of the abolitionist movement, which his family was deeply involved in, has become almost totally obscured—an ember buried under layers of ash and forgetfulness. He has a grandfather, whose abolitionist legacy overwhelms him, a father he is disappointed in, a wife whose radiant sadness seems addressed to him from another world, and a son he adores.

As with Ruth in Housekeeping, Ames often reads his life through metaphor, as in this striking memory of watching as a young child while his father helped pull down the remains of a church struck by lightning, ashes and rain everywhere:

You never do know the actual nature even of your own experience. Or perhaps it has no fixed and certain nature. I remember my father down on his heels in the rain, water dripping from his hat, feeding me biscuit from his scorched hand, with that old blackened wreck of a church behind him and steam rising where the rain fell on embers, the rain falling in gusts and the women singing "The Old Rugged Cross" while they saw to things, moving so gently, as if they were dancing to the hymn, almost. In those days no grown woman ever let herself be seen with her hair undone, but that day even the grand old women had their hair falling down their backs like schoolgirls. It was so joyful and sad.

He returns over and over to the ashy taste of this moment of communion, sharing "the bread of affliction" while in the background women abandoned themselves to rhythms so deep that they seemed to all but vanish into them. "I can't tell you what that day in the rain has meant to me," he writes to his son. "But I know how many things it put altogether beyond question, for me." He carries it inside of him as a vision of "prodigal renunciation, … empty-handed prodigality. … I have nothing to give you, take and eat."

There are visions, Ames remarks, "that come to us only in memory, in retrospect," and this is certainly one of them—speaking to him both of the smallness of human life in the face of great mysteries and of the incandescent glimpse of the sacred any one of our gestures provides once we quit clinging to this world and our places in it. Much like Ruth, Ames reads his life and the world around him out of a chastened sense of their utter weightlessness when compared to eternity, and their utter value, as the places of its fragile incarnation:

I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can't believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets.
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