Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Balm in Gilead

In Poe’s “The Raven”, his miserable narrator, tormented by a mocking black bird/demon cries out, “Is there no balm in Gilead ?” This was the land of the Bible that possessed the metaphorical salve to comfort the suffering Israelites. The poem's speaker feels no relief from the grief over the loss of Lenore, his love. His grim feelings are echoed in a religiously spiritual way in Gilead, a new novel by Marilynne Robinson, written twenty-five years after her first, Housekeeping. Her new novel is pervaded with authentic religious sensibility, expressed in severe but beautifully done prose. Believers and non-believers would do well to read this book to gain understanding of the complexity, value and truth found in the spiritual path.

Her narrator is John Ames, apparently dying of heart disease at the age of seventy-six, who writes an extended letter to his distant seven year old son in an attempt to explain his life and the lives of his family. Ames is a minister, definitely a man of God, as was his grandfather, who lost an eye to the struggles against slavery during the Civil War. Throughout the story, which covers about one hundred years of family history, Ames strongly portrays the spiritual composition, or lack of it, in all those he encounters.

Ames is a Calvinist, as is Robinson, a religious following now generally thought to be too strict and repressive for the modern day. But Ames, although often unyielding, leaves the judgments to his God, and tries be as gentle as he can be. He tries to be forgiving, since he admits he has much to be forgiven for himself. In doing so, the wisdom of his faith is self-evident. Robinson finds in her narrator John Ames a few answers but more questions about spiritual concerns in Gilead, Iowa. This work is so excellent it will undoubtedly be shortlisted for the literary awards of the coming season.


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