Study Guide

Gilead Setting

By Marilynne Robinson


Gilead, Iowa

A lot happens in this small, fictional town in Iowa. It's home to a number of Christian denominations, including (at one time) a black congregation. The Underground Railroad was active in the area, as were militant abolitionists. For generations, the Ames family has lived here in Gilead. Gilead is basically your quintessential all-American Midwestern small town. John Ames, who's lived here most of his life, describes it best:

A stranger might ask why there is a town here at all. Our children might ask. And who could answer them? It was just a dogged little outpost in the sand hills, within striking distance of Kansas. That's really all it was meant to be. It was a place John Brown and Jim Lane could fall back on when they needed to heal and rest. There must have been a hundred little towns like it, set up in the heat of an old urgency that is all forgotten now, and their littleness and their shabbiness, which was the measure of the courage and passion that went into making them, now just look awkward and provincial and ridiculous, even to the people who have lived here long enough to know better. It looks ridiculous to me. I truly suspect I never left because I was afraid I would not come back. (2.21.101)

Ames won't mind if his son leaves Gilead to live elsewhere. In fact, he expects him to. Nonetheless, Ames finds something Christ-like in the humility of the place, which may be one reason why he himself stayed.

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