Marilynne Robinson (2004) Gilead

Gilead was winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  I’m sure I’ve read it before. And I keep picking it up and re-reading bits because I don’t know where I left off reading. It’s a story in which nothing much happens but life. A dying man writing a letter to his young son, who’s is young enough to be his great-grandson. It’s 1956 and the narrator is pondering whether he should vote for Eisenhower. And in recalling how his life didn’t amount to much more than a bushel of corn – American history, prior to the Civil War springs into life. The bloom of wisdom is on every page. This is a book you could read backwards, sideways or upside down and it would still make sense.

‘I, John Ames, was born on the Year of Our Lord 1880, in the state of Kansas, the son of John Ames and Martha Turner Ames, grandson of John Ames and Margaret Todd Ames. At this writing I have lived seventy-six years, seventy-four of them here in Gilead, Iowa, excepting study at the college and seminary.’

He’s the preacher son of a preacher son of a preacher son. His view of life is thereby constricted or heightened. ‘One benefit of a religious vocation is it helps you concentrate.’

His grandfather, for example, was a kind of living saint, who carried a gun and fought against slavery in the Civil War.

‘When someone remarked in his hearing that he’d lost an eye in the Civil War, he said, “I prefer to remember that I’d kept one”.   

Jesus was more real to his grandfather that his own son or grandson.

‘My grandfather told me about a vision he’d had when he was still living in Maine, not yet sixteen. He’d fallen asleep at the fire, worn out from a day helping his father pull out stumps. Someone touched him on the shoulder, and when he looked up, there was the Lord, holding out His arms to him, which were bound in chains. My grandfather said, ‘Those irons had rankled right down to His bones.”’

That’s why his grandfather became an abolitionist, not because Jesus told him to, but because Jesus showed him to. His grandson lacks that certainty and that fire. He burnt the best sermon he reckoned he ever wrote not because it wasn’t true, but because it might have offended some people and that might have been no good. His grandfather carried a gun and had no truck with not offending people, if God made that call.

Gilead’s narrator, as a kindness, does not speak about God’s wrath in the aftermath of the Spanish flu.

‘People don’t talk much about Spanish influenza, but that was a terrible thing, and it struck just at the time of the Great War, just when they were getting involved in it. It killed the soldiers by the thousands, healthy men in the prime of life, and then it spread to the rest of the population. It was like a war, it really was. One funeral after another, right here in Iowa. We lost so many of the people and we got off lightly. People came to the church wearing masks, if they came at all. They’d sit far from each other as they could. There was talk of the Germans had caused it with some sort of secret weapon, and I think people wanted to believe that…

The parents of these young soldiers would come and ask me how the Lord would allow such a thing.’

Reading that now, with its fake news and resonance of what is happening now, but with the much less virulent coronavirus it would make you think Robinson had a hotline to God. Great writers always sound as if they do and Marilynne Robinson doesn’t need to preach the point. She’s a writer of words that hymn in harmony. Read on.  

John Lewis-Stempel (2016) Where Poppies Blow. The British Soldier, Nature, The Great War.

 

where poppies grow.jpg

John Lewis-Stempel’s Where Poppies Blow is a hotchpot of different things. That’s usually a criticism, but in this case this is the books strength. Pre-war England is the baseline, a kind of Arcadia to which the British soldier on the front’s mind often returns. Fuck off I say to that kind of crap. The majority of troops came from slum housing and if they were lucky enough to be in regular employments worked between 12 and 15 hours a day for 364 days a year and were considered old by the time they were thirty and ancient by the age of forty. Yet trenches that divided warring nations were a great leveller. An officer, which was a shorthand for a gentleman, and the working class, really were in it together and shared the same bit of dirt and while the former had it slightly easier with better rations, where more likely to end up dead or injured.  Britain, generally, was an animal loving nation, regardless of class.

The other great social leveller Robert Burn recognised in his poem ‘To a Louse’ was lice. ‘Lice observed neither rank nor class.’  A ‘cootie hunt’ was the creed of the trenches. Rats were also fair game, but this war the British soldiers lost. Rats outbred any attempts at controlling them and corpses galore to feed on they grew to the size of legend and treated the living and the dead with equal contempt. One of the positive effects of German gas attacks was it killed many of the rats, but they quickly recovered a decomposed foothold.  Fungal infections such as clostridium perfringes, ‘Trench foot’ sent 20 000 to hospital in the first winter of 1914-15 and this was combined with bacillius fustiformis helping to produce the ulcerating gingivitis ‘Trench Mouth’. Foot and mouth disease wasn’t confined to animals. A Great War for microbes.

Just under a million British army hospital admissions for sickness were made in 1918, with just under 10 000 deaths. At the end of the war 500 permanent cemeteries were created with 400 000 headstones. [Compare this to the over 27 million and upwards killed in the USSR to give you some idea of scale, or indeed, the almost 500 000 American troops sent overseas to Vietnam ostensibly to fight Communism in 1969].

At the end of the War To End All Wars the Animal War Museum’s plaque in Kilburn commemorated the 484 143 horses, mules, camels and bullocks, hundreds of dogs, carrier pigeons and other creatures that died working for the armed forces.

In contrast, 11th November 1918, 735 409 horses and mules and 56 287 camels were given their demob papers. Their fate, like the working class soldier, was to be put on the market. The book ends with a quote from Ford Madox Ford’s Parade End: ‘How are we to live? How are we to ever live?’

I prefer Burn’s version: To a Mouse:

I’m truly sorry man’s dominon

Has broken nature’s social union

And justifies that ill opinion

…But mousie, that art no thy lane,

In proving foresight may be vain:

The best laid schemes of mice and men

Gang aft a’gley,

And lea’s us nought but grief and pain

For promised joy…