Gilead, Iowa is a fictional town. Gilead also refers to a part of the the holy land mentioned in the bible as "hill of testimony, mound of witness".
The main character in Gilead is John Ames, a 76 year-old Congregationalist pastor who has lived most of his life in Gilead, Iowa and now is in ill health. He writes a letter to his 7 year-old son from a second marriage whom he regrets he will not live to see become a man. Ames life has been lived on that hill of testimony and now he is here to bare witness on the view out from the mound. More than fictional narrative, Robinson's novel unfolds slowly, like a deep, contemplative meditation on the chasm between generations, cultural certitudes, infallibility, religious dogma, and the slumbering reconciliations and compromises inherent in being the self-aware parent, son, and husband.
Delivered through the eyes of a man who has spent a life reconciling his own high standards and moral failures he grasps to make sense of the world and offer his best wisdom to the young son he loves dearly. The American midwest as a character in itself, formulates part of the condition of a man keenly aware of his own culpability in his life regrets. Ames looks back on his life where he struggled to be the beacon for his congregation, to bridge the gaps of belief, to ask the hard philosophical questions of life, and to come to terms with his own pride and forgiveness. This is old-style christianity as it was formed in the no nonsense, plain-spoken character of the flat states, pummeled by the history of generations, slavery, abolitionist movements, and the changing ideals of the new America.
What I liked about this story that Robinson allows to leisurely bloom is it presents in a lyrical, ruminating style that asks you to, no forces you, to take a moment to digest the wisdom of the aging preacher and feel deeply the harsh assessment of his memories. This narrator, who we come to know, who wrote hundreds of sales service sermons to convert the faithful and unfaithful alike, interweaves his bumpy, mainstream life with the soul-destroying gaps of his ardent proselytizing. This is not a modern narrative as it is written in a style that asks you to put yourself in the place of a man who only now is coming to terms with the questions he once blithely answered with the rote, easy solutions of his young man years. In his open letter, he must come to terms with the real meaning of all of it and the consequences of action as we each do. These include the judgements of which even his town contemporaries would have likely found agreement, but these are also ones he wars with regularly.
This is a novel where story sometimes takes a backseat to examination yet, you never feel like you are left not understanding each character's story and their individual struggles. The prose is elegant, quite possibly off- putting to some who may tire of the author's languid approach, but Robinson is truly a great writer and her novel is a melodic old-world hymn set to words. The book takes time to grab interest, yet rewards in the end, the way a great piece of literature sometimes should, not with a bold, gregarious punch but with that slow, seeping reflection of understanding and graceful prose that gently creeps up on you.