Thomas Gardner

This Poor Gray Ember of Creation

Marilynne Robinson's Gilead is a novel to savor

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The novel shifts near the halfway point when the ne'er-do-well son of a friend returns to Gilead, a namesake whom Ames had baptized as a child and then hardened himself toward as he brought grief and heartache to his family and the community. The friend's son returns, "his inexplicable mortal self," and begins taking an interest in Ames's wife and young son, whom Ames must soon lose. Suddenly terrified about a future he'll be able to do nothing about, Ames finds himself, as he writes, in the wilderness again: "I have wandered to the limits of my understanding any number of times, out into that desolation, that Horeb, that Kansas, and I've scared myself, too, a good many times, leaving all landmarks behind me, or so it seemed. And it has been among the true pleasures of my life. … [But] my present bewilderments are a new territory that make me doubt I have ever really been lost before." With this turn, Ames' not only struggles to read his past; he must also read and engage his present. It's a mark of Robinson's quiet and deeply meditated artistry, then, that what Ames enacts in reaching out toward the son of his friend in an unexpected blessing, understanding that he will soon be as nothing before the world's larger forces, echoes and completes a series of earlier visions in the novel. We are reminded of the bread of affliction, the grandfather's absorption in a divine call to free the captives, even Gilead's once incandescent standing for principle. Ames' single gesture knocks the ashes off all these selfless moments and sends new sparks flying. "This poor gray ember of Creation," Ames muses. "Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration." Hopkins would have understood.

Thomas Gardner is professor of English at Virginia Tech. His book Emily Dickinson and Contemporary Writers is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

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