Tabor, Iowa in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead

PHOTO CREDIT: Melissa Johnson. This photo is licensed under the the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

“Love is holy because it is like grace–the worthiness of its object is never really what matters.”1

Gilead, the fictional town of Marilynne Robinson’s award-winning second novel, is based upon Tabor, Iowa, in the southwest corner of the state, by the West Nishnabotna River. Tabor was founded in 1853 by Christian clergyman, who named it for the Biblical Mount Tabor, near Jesus’s birthplace of Nazareth; some early Christian scholars name Mount Tabor as the site of Jesus’s transfiguration, depicted in Matthew 17:1–13. By naming the novel Gilead, which is a mountainous region in present-day Jordan referenced several times in the Bible, Robinson both suggests and veils Tabor, Iowa, as the inspirational location. The epistolary novel’s protagonist, John Ames (a dying preacher writing to his seven-year-old son), describes Gilead as, “just a cluster of houses strung along a few roads, and a little row of brick buildings with stores in them, and a grain elevator and a water tower with Gilead written on its side, and the post office and the schools and the playing fields and the old train station, which is pretty well gone to weeds now.” The small town has an atmosphere of friendly resilience to the despair engrained in its past. John Ames remembers droughts, the Depression, and three wars, all of which brought sorrow to the community, but, in ways unique to adversity, they brought humility and strength as well. John’s brother and father—and one day his son, he fears—all struggle with the paucity of opportunity in the small town, but John writes that “You can’t tell so much from the appearance of a place,” encouraging his son to suspend judgment, despite his own decades of loneliness.

In the mid-1800s, the Kansas Territory became the ideological epicenter of the impending war between the Union and Confederacy. Whether it was settled predominantly by slave owners or by “free soilers” would determine whether the North or the South would get another state and tip the balance of power. John Ames’ grandfather, also a preacher and a forceful presence in the novel, is inspired by the historical Reverend John Todd, who lead military forays from the border town of Tabor into Kansas. Whether violence is justified in circumstances of oppression is one of the themes explored in the novel. Robinson offers no easy answers, as answers don’t come easily in life, but she does suggest that grace, in all its unpredictability, is possible.

Read more about Reverend John Todd and Tabor’s place in the Underground Railroad on Fold3. Learn more about Tabor, Iowa on Wikipedia. Find Gilead at a local library or on Amazon.

1Robinson, Marilynne. Gilead. New York: FSG, 2004.

Christopher Nelson is the author of Blue House and the editor of Under A Warm Green Linden.

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