I’ve been making my way through Gilead, the Pulitzer Prize winning book by Marilynne Robinson. One time I did such a thing in a literal way as I was a mere few miles from the location of the fictional town trying to cross the Missouri following the floods of 2011.
The book mentions no floods outside of the floods of mercy and the floods of travail. Its literal weather events focus more on drought with rain being welcomed except for one instance when it washed out some graves and produced a stream that unsuspecting picnickers would find a pleasant spot for their meals.
The author, is fascinating in and of herself. She writes “non-fiction” fiction in places that are fitting for Malick films. Her characters are simple on the surface and complex underneath. They are grace-filled merciful Calvinists, products of the deep Midwest and people of an everyday beauty. Unlike these, she is a product of America’s westward expansion and came to live in the mountains of western Washington before settling in Iowa, a place she admits to having a prejudice about when she was young as she was given over to the more obvious beauty of her original forested and granite filled home.
“There is more beauty in the everyday world than our eyes can take in.” Those of the words of Gilead’s Reverend Ames. Robinson eventually dispelled her prejudices about the Midwest. She has lived in Iowa for over twenty years and her books are about the people of “flyover country.”
I know the place well. I live in its only city of any global regard and travel the landscape frequently to see my family who live on a plot of land with an ever expanding house and diminishing gardens. (My parents once had remarkable gardens and spent thousands on their upkeep. Now my father merely a grows a few vegetables and my mother maintains a couple of flower beds. )
The borders of the Midwest are obvious. Traveling east to west, you come out of the Alleghenies and soon see the “Welcome to Ohio” sign. From there one can travel more than a thousand miles punctuated by fields and small towns. The land grows flat, then starts to rise again; droughts and floods are common, not to mention tornadoes. I don’t think anyone can claim to be a Midwesterner until they have been holed up in a basement or seen a twister. (In my own experience I have only ever seen one true funnel cloud….a water spout off of Put-in-Bay that forced me and some friends down from the Perry Victory Monument.)
The western boundary is as obvious as the eastern. It is best seen driving after coming through hours of prairie. It is most unromantically known as the mid-continental uplift, a land of hogbacks and buttes that see little rain and distinguish the High Plains from the more verdant Midwest of the likes of Michigan and Ohio. Fictional Gilead is squarely between these two points and shares the warm rain of the eastern and flat Midwest and the arid and stale air of the drought stricken landscape of the sandstone formations that tells the westward traveler they will soon see monsters.
Robinson relates to both landscapes. Though now thoroughly Midwestern, she still laments the clear cutting that has put treeless swaths down the sides of the granite giants of her former home and as not to dismiss the East, she admits that Gilead was started in a room on Cape Cod when the company of her sons was delayed and she was left with the sound of the ocean and what she calls “Emily Dickinson light.”
Gilead is a testimony to beauty, but a beauty best understood through the lens of grace. An aging minister is dying of a heart condition and is writing to his seven year old son. In spite of the touching language one can’t help but question the fairness of the thing, however. I have not reached the point of the novel where age comes into play outside of the Pastor’s health, but his lament at leaving the world with a young widow and son and not making much in the way of their provision is already clearly present and one can question his decision to marry (or to say yes to one as it is his Lila who proposes.)
Then there are other ethical questions that informs the religious imagination of the work….what right does a young cleric have to tell the aged and the dying of life and death even if s/he were asked or what right does anyone have to engage in relationship when their life may be required of them at anytime regardless of health or age? The answer Robinson finds is that such things are righteous. They are this way because “God takes an aesthetic pleasure in people.” That quote by Calvin informs her way of thinking and lets us know, especially those quick to judge Calvin, that God’s mercy is ordained before His judgment. We are in life for God’s good pleasure and to know God’s love which becomes manifest on the good earth before it ever does in heaven. One can only have faith in a heaven, but they can live on earth with a loving courage, even if the earth is the “dour” Midwest.
In the parlance of Christian psychology, it begs the chicken and egg question rephrased with courage and love. And we can find both answers for ourselves….some need courage before they can love and others do need to be loved before they know courage, but the spiritual truth is we love because He first loved us, even if we are the simple people of flyover country.
To return to the geography of the matter, we are loved in heaven’s landscape, but heaven also casts its reflection on earth. It is easy to see it beside the ocean or in mountainous peaks, but it is also in the prairie landscape of the setting sun and in the homes that sit in the quiet towns in places with names like Indiana and North Dakota. It inhabits everyplace where human hearts are to be found. That Robinson sees this heavenly reflection in the place I call home gives me the greatest pleasure.