Revisiting Gilead: Lila, by Marilynne Robinson

Iowa Postcard Image

     “Love is holy because it is like grace–the worthiness of its object is never really what matters.”   From Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson.

     I met Lila for the first-time as John Ames’ quiet, somewhat awkward wife in Gilead.  The mother of the child to whom Ames’ murmurings, thoughts, philosophies — the text of Gilead — were written.   Lila came to Reverend Ames when he had passed into his own-considered old age, 67, and gave him a child.  A miracle.  The Issac to his Abraham.

Sacrifice_of_Isaac-Caravaggio_(c._1603) Sacrifice of Issac, Caravaggio

    In Lila, she returns as the teller of her own tale.  Her birth as an ugly and unwanted child, stolen by a woman named Doll   taken from the home that didn’t want her into an on-the-road existence, a migrant worker even as a child.  But Doll loved her, cared for her, taught her what she knew.  “Doll always said, Just be quiet. Whatever it is, just wait for it to be over. Everything ends sometime.”

    Marilynne Robinson has written four novels, each of which is considered a masterpiece.  For Gilead, she won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and the Ambassador Book Award.   Robinson was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Obama in 2013, she has taught at the Iowa Writers Workshop since its inception.  the 2004 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, and the 2005 Ambassador Book Award.  Lila was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award.  

     Robinson writes as John Ames in Gilead.  In Lila, she pens a memoir inside the life of Lila but from a third person point of view.  Close to the woman, but never completely inside her.  The reader intuits that this is how John Ames must feel sharing his life with Lila.  He longs to know her secrets, but she is too skittish, too distrustful.  All too ready to take the next train out of town. “You best keep to yourself, except you never can.”

    From the first page, the beauty of Robinson’s prose and the tenacity of her protagonist pulls the reader into the somewhat unlikely spell of the town of Gilead, Iowa.

Gilead was the kind of town where dogs slept in the road for the sun and the warmth that lingered after the sun was gone, and the few cars that there were had to stop and honk until the dogs decided to get up and let them pass by. They’d go limping off to the side, lamed by the comfort they’d had to give up, and then they’d settle down again right where they were before. It really wasn’t much of a town.

     With themes of loneliness, desertion, poverty and existential, theological and political questions running throughout these novels, why are they so beloved?  Perhaps Gilead represents the crux of our American struggle with our religious past and our humanist present.  With our country’s striving for peace by fighting wars.  With our rage against injustice while exercising our own prejudices.  It would take no less than a Marilynne Robinson to create a beautiful order out of the contradictory chaos.


For further reference:  an in-depth interview with Marilynne Robinson, and a New Yorker review of Lila:


The book features lots of casseroles, brought by the well-meaning ladies of John Ames’ church, sandwiches, catfish and corn mush.  For inspiration, I dug into my Grandmother’s recipe box.

Chicken California Casserole

Saute 1/2 green pepper chopped, 1 1/2 cup chopped onion, 1 1/2 cup chopped celery.  Add 1 can mushrooms with liquid, 1 can cream of mushroom soup, 1 teaspoon each of pepper and salt.  1/4 teaspoon each of curry and sage.  4 cups of diced chicken, 12 ounce package of wild rice (pre-cooked), 2 beaten eggs and 1 cup slivered almonds.  Bake at 350 for one hour.

Cornmeal Mush

1 1/4 cups cornmeal
2 1/2 cups water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1. Mix together cornmeal, water, and salt in a medium saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until mixture thickens, about 5 to 7 minutes.
2. If using as cereal, spoon mush into bowls and serve with milk and sugar, if desired. If frying, pour mixture into a loaf pan and chill completely. Remove from pan, cut into slices, and fry in a small amount of oil over medium-high heat until browned on both sides. Serve with sauce of your choice.


For dessert, I would add a dessert that speaks to Lila’s talent for roses.  I found this link that offers several dessert recipes featuring roses:


Though I couldn’t find many musicians from Iowa with whom I was familiar, I did find Bix Beiderbecke, born in 1903 in Davenport.  He would have been younger than John Ames, but older than Lila and his music may have been familiar to both.


John Ames:  Jon Voight

Lila:  Mary Steenburgen

Doll:  Melissa Leo

Happy Reading!


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