Gilead is Marilynne Robinson’s second and most famous work. Published in 2004, it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005, as well as the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Robinson based her novel on real places and real people. Gilead, while fictional, is based on Tabor, Iowa, which was significant in the abolitionist movement of the 19th century; John Ames’s grandfather is based on the Reverend John Todd, a Congregationalist minister, Underground Railroad conductor, and supplier of weapons and ammunition for John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry.
Robinson’s theological influences in the book stem from her interest in John Calvin, whose work she consistently articulates is misunderstood and often overlooked. Gilead is a fictional corollary, then, to her book of essays The Death of Adam, in which she explores Calvinist teachings.
In an interview with The Atlantic, Robinson explained her choice of the name “Gilead,” agreeing with the interviewer’s suggestion of Elijah and Jacob in Gilead and adding, “Yes, and Gilead comes up in Jeremiah 8:22: ‘Is there no balm in Gilead?’ It also comes up in Obadiah. The biblical Gilead has a very complex history. It's a town that's criticized for being rich and hard-hearted; it's lamented because it's been destroyed; and it's also used as a symbol of what can be restored, what can be hoped for. I like the name because it has various histories and meanings.”
The work is a personal favorite of President Barack Obama, who has praised it numerous times and awarded Robinson the National Humanities Medal in 2012.
It received nearly universal acclaim from critics. James Wood wrote in the New Yorker: “There is, however, something remarkable about the writing in ‘Gilead.’ It's not just a matter of writing well, although Robinson demonstrates that talent on every page…It isn't just the care with which Robinson can relax the style to a Midwestern colloquialism: 'But one afternoon a storm came up and a gust of wind hit the henhouse and lifted the roof right off, and hens came flying out, sucked after it, I suppose, and also just acting like hens.’ (How deceptively easy that little coda is – ‘and also just acting like hens’ -- but how much it conveys.) Robinson's words have a spiritual force that's very rare in contemporary fiction.” David E. Anderson for PBS wrote: “‘Gilead’ is better than a good book. It is a slim, spare, yet exquisite and wonderfully realized story that will long stand as one of fiction’s finest reflections on the sacramental dimensions of life, especially the Christian life lived in the routines and wonderments of prayer. It is, like a good sermon, a passionate meditation.”