Gilead is an epistolary novel: a single, episodic letter from the Reverend John Ames to his seven-year-old son. Ames, a Congregationalist minister in tiny Gilead, Iowa, is dying of a heart condition, and he is documenting his life for the son he will not see to reach adulthood. He talks about his own childhood in Gilead: his father, a Christian pacifist, and his grandfather, a radical abolitionist who “preached his people into the war.” He writes of the death of his first wife, who died giving birth to their child, and of Lila, an uneducated woman with whom he falls in love. Gilead draws from Robinson’s beliefs and the value she places in Calvinist texts—and correcting misconceptions about the work of John Calvin. In her lecture “The Freedom of a Christian,” she writes, “One of the reasons these texts are important to me is because they have everything to do with my own theology certainly, with my aesthetic perhaps, and in so far as I can say I have an intention in writing, they have everything to do with my intention.”
Marilynne Robinson was born in Sandpoint, Idaho in 1943. She graduated from Pembroke College, then the women’s college at Brown University, and earned a PhD in English at the University of Washington. She taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for 25 years before becoming a professor emeritus in 2016. She was raised as a Presbyterian but became a Congregationalist, and her interest in Calvinism has been a cornerstone of her work. She’s received many awards for her fiction and essays, including the Pulitzer Prize for Gilead, the National Humanities Medal, and the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction. She was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people in 2016.