BOOK DISCUSSION GUIDE
Summary: "In 1956, toward the end of Reverend
John Ames's life, he begins a letter to his young son, an account of
himself and his forebears. Ames is the son of an Iowa preacher and the
grandson of a minister who, as a young man in Maine, saw a vision of
Christ bound in chains and came west to Kansas to fight for abolition:
He "preached men into the Civil War,+" then, at age fifty,
became a chaplain in the Union Army, losing his right eye in battle.
Reverend Ames writes to his son about the tension between his father
- an ardent pacifist - and his grandfather, whose pistol and bloody
shirts, concealed in an army blanket, may be relics from the fight between
the abolitionists and those settlers who wanted to vote Kansas into
the union as a slave state. And he tells a story of the sacred bonds
between fathers and sons, which are tested in his tender and strained
relationship with his namesake, John Ames Boughton, his best friend's
wayward son." "This is also the tale of another remarkable
vision - not a corporeal vision of God but the vision of life as a wondrously
strange creation. It tells how wisdom was forged in Ames's soul during
his solitary life, and how history lives through generations, pervasively
present even when betrayed and forgotten." - Book Jacket
1. Light plays a central role in this book: The rainbow light on a little
boy's hair, the light over the prairie, the morning light coming into
the church, the light of the crossing rising moon and setting sun. What
is the significance of light in this novel? For example, the afternoon
light (page 51) and the at the scene of the grandfather's grave?
2. Water is also symbolic in this novel. Discuss the author's use of
water in Gilead. Can you compare it with the use of water in her earlier
3. Each of the characters in this book is distinct and multi-dimensional.
Talk about this.
The Grandfather with his one eye that "seemed to be full of disappointment
and expectation at once," and "poked me like stick" when
he looked at me. His beard "like a paint brush left to dry with
lacquer in it."
-- The woman in Kansas who took John and his father in when they were
searching for the elder Ames's grave. "We'll be fine when the rains
-- Lila, John Ames's wife: her undisclosed past and inscrutable manner,
her seriousness that John Ames describes as "like a kind of anger,"
her insight and loving qualities.
-- John Ames's father: A man of principal; burying his father's sermons,
pistol and bloody shirt, then digging them up again; helping to take
down the burned church.
-- John Ames's mother: Hiding household money from the elder Reverend
Ames who believed: To he who asks, give; her courage and humor when
the storm blew the roof off the hen house. "I know there is a blessing
in there somewhere." (Page 35); and washing and ironing the old
preacher's shirt, then neatly folding and wrapping it in paper and burying
it. (Page 81)
-- Jack Boughton: a damaged Prodigal Son of dubious intentions.
4. Of the characters in the book who were the most significant to you.
Who the least?
5. What are some of your favorite passages of every day life depicted
in the novel and why?
6. Humor is often intertwined with tragedy: The hen house episode (page
35); the story of collapsing tunnel (page 58); Soapy, the cat (page
92); the Baptism of the bam cats (page 22); and courting Lila (page
207). What is the importance of humor in these events?
7. What is the significance of John Ames's statement about being a
minister: People want you to be a little bit apart." Being on the
outside looking in seems to be central to John Ames's life: his family
leaving Gilead; people treating him distantly because he is in the ministry;
the sense that before he was born there was a complete and happy family
of four (two siblings died before John was born).
8. Do you think Jack Boughton's friendship with John Ames's wife and
son served to heighten the reverend's sense of alienation?
9. Do you think it was jealousy of Jack Boughton that made the reverend
depart from his text during the sermon on Abraham and his sons? (Page
10. Do you think Jack Boughton is badgering John Ames? Do you think
he is taunting him when he calls him "Papa?" If so, why?
11. Is the reverend direct and forthcoming in his response to Jack's
12. What does John Ames mean by "you can know a thing to death
and be completely ignorant of it," and how does that statement
relate to his feeling about his religion?
13. The reverend wrote 50 sermons a year for 45 years, each written,
as he tells his son, ''as if Rebecca might walk through the door hearing
my hopes and speculations and taking the measure of my incomprehension."
Does he seem unsure in his faith by this statement, or unsure of his
ability to convey the message of his faith?
14. There are several passages that relate to John Ames's thoughts on
religion. (Pages 145 and 178). What is your reaction to his statement:
"Don't look for proofs. Don't bother with them at all. They are
never sufficient to the question and they're always a little impertinent,
I think, because they claim for God a place within our conceptual grasp."
15. Do you agree with one reviewer who said: "There has been much
talk lately about a religious divided in this country. Gilead,
then may be the perfect book at the perfect time." What do you
"This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention
you can give it," writes John Ames, 77, Reverend of a small Congregationalist
church in the Midwest town of Gilead, Iowa in 1956. Suffering from heart
disease, the Reverend writes a long letter to the adult his six year
old son will someday be. This reflective father-to-son narrative illuminates,
like the sun rising over the prairie, the dazzling history of a forsaken
town and touches on the beauty of day to day life, which John Ames has
come to cherish as he nears the end of his life. Gilead, a
Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Marilynne Robinson, is her second novel
since the acclaimed Housekeeping was published 24 years before.
In biblical history, Gilead is a land east of the Jordan and the source
of a healing salve, the balm of Gilead. It has less beneficent associations
as well, as a land of violence and bloodshed. Both of these factions
come together in the novel and in the town itself which was settled
as an abolitionist colony harboring runaway slaves and refugees prior
to the outbreak of the Civil War. By the mid-20th Century, as John Ames
writes this letter to his son, the town has long lost its relevance;
as John Ames says, "it was a place John Brown and his supporters
could fall back on." The significance of the place has never left
John Ames, however, whose family history is deeply rooted in Gilead.
His father and grandfather were ministers of the same humble Congregationalist
church whose ministry he inherited.
"Every single one of us is a civilization built on preceding civilizations,"
he writes to his son. John Ames's grandfather was a larger than life
figure who became an abolitionist after receiving a vision of Jesus
in chain. He used his congregation and his church to aid the cause of
antislavery, often delivering his sermons in a blood stained shirt and
a pistol tucked in his pants. John Ames's father, conversely, was a
pacifist, who raged against war and his father's use of bloodshed in
the service of. God's will. However, his love for the old Nazarite was
deep and abiding and when the old man disappeared to Kansas and finally
died there, John Ames's father journeyed with his 12 year old son across
Kansas by foot to find and bless the old man's grave. The journey, its
hazards and revelations resurface in John Ames's memory throughout his
All this history and the heat of urgency that built the town of Gilead,
moved on leaving a few strung together buildings and the declining settlement
church. John Ames's father, mother and brother left, and exhorted him
to do the same. "You have no obligation to this place," his
father said on his last return trip to Gilead. Even when John Ames lost
his first wife and child in childbirth, he remained in the town entrenched
in his faith and devoted to his parishioners. He wrote 50 sermons a
year for 45 years, each written, as he tells his son, ''as if Rebecca
(the child who died) might walk through the door hearing my hopes and
speculations and taking the measure of my incomprehension."
John Ames's life in Gilead following the death of his wife and child
was lonely and meditative. "I didn't feel at home in this world,"
he writes to his son of that time. His life takes a dramatic turn, however,
when he meets Lila, a woman vastly different from anyone he would be
expected to marry - much younger, with a difficult past and uneducated.
But from the day she entered his church while he delivered the Pentecost
service, he was struck by a quality thef- he described as "an earned
innocence." As he writes, "she didn't look like she belonged,
and yet she was the only one who did."
His wife and son are the true blessings of his life even as he accepts
the bittersweet reality of how little time he has left to share with
them. It is through his love for wife and son that he receives his greatest
blessing and vision - a vision not of Christ in chains, but of the unknown
beauty of the known world. Of Gilead he says, "it is rather Christ
like to be as unadorned as this place."
It is during the radiant sunset of Reverend Ames's life that he is visited
by the shadows of self doubt and a possible threat to his family. It
comes in the person of John (Jack) Ames Boughton, his best friend's
Prodigal Son and John Ames's own God son, who returns to Gilded presumably
to be with his father who, like John Ames, has little time left to live.
Jack Boughton has lived a disreputable and dishonorable life and his
true motives for returning are deeply troubling to John Ames. He feels
the younger man is taunting him to explain and defend his faith, especially
on the theme of salvation and redemption. John is tom by the duties
of his ministry and his secular dislike and suspicion of his God son,
especially when Jack insinuates himself into the affections of John's
son and wife.
But John Ames's faith has withstood greater challenges than Jack Boughton.
In the end, his faith does not rest on scripture, but on the divinity
of life itself. As he says of performing a baptism, "it is not
to enhance blessing, but to acknowledge it."
and interviews with Marilynne Robinson
Questions and related information provided by Mary Cuffe-Perez
This discussion guide made possible with public funds from the New York
State Council on the Arts, a State Agency. Sponsored by the Mohawk Valley
Library System and participating member libraries.