Gilead udspiller sig i en lille by af samme navn i den amerikanske stat Iowa. I 1956, mod slutningen af sit liv, begynder pastor John Ames på et brev til sin syv-årige søn. Han har fået ham meget sent i livet og vil gerne efterlade et vidnesbyrd om sig selv og om den slægt drengen er født ind i. Gilead er en kærlighedserklæring til det liv som er ved at glide John Ames af hænde, og en sjældent varm og klog bog. Det er også en bog som formår at formidle en religiøst præget livsintensitet som man sjældent ser skildret i moderne litteratur.
Fans of Robinson's acclaimed debut Housekeeping (1981) will find that the long wait has been worth it. From the first page of her second novel, the voice of Rev. John Ames mesmerizes with his account of his life and that of his father and grandfather. Ames is 77 years old in 1956, in failing health, with a much younger wife and six-year-old son; as a preacher in the small Iowa town where he spent his entire life, he has produced volumes and volumes of sermons and prayers, "rying to say what was true." But it is in this mesmerizing account in the form of a letter to his young son, who he imagines reading it when he is grown that his meditations on creation and existence are fully illumined. Ames details the often harsh conditions of perishing Midwestern prairie towns, the Spanish influenza and two world wars. He relates the death of his first wife and child, and his long years alone attempting to live up to the legacy of his fiery grandfather, a man who saw visions of Christ and became a controversial figure in the Kansas abolitionist movement, and his own father's embittered pacifism. During the course of Ames's writing, he is confronted with one of his most difficult and long-simmering crises of personal resentment when John Ames Boughton (his namesake and son of his best friend) returns to his hometown, trailing with him the actions of a callous past and precarious future. In attempting to find a way to comprehend and forgive, Ames finds that he must face a final comprehension of self as well as the worth of his life's reflections. Robinson's prose is beautiful, shimmering and precise; the revelations are subtle but never muted when they come, and the careful telling carries the breath of suspense. There is no simple redemption here; despite the meditations on faith, even readers with no religious inclinations will be captivated. Many writers try to capture life's universals of strength, struggle, joy and forgiveness but Robinson truly succeeds in what is destined to become her second classic.