Year of Award


Document Type

Thesis - Campus Access Only

Degree Type

Master of Arts (MA)

Degree Name

English (Literature)

Department or School/College

Department of English

Committee Chair

Nancy Cook

Commitee Members

Christopher Knight, Tobin Miller Shearer


homogeneity, Iowa history, place studies, race, social justice


University of Montana


Iowa history reveals a long-term progressive stance towards implementing civil liberties laws. Yet many outside of the state equate Iowa with staid provincialism because of its rural isolation in the American heartland. Novelist Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead brings attention to a little known time in Iowa history when residents were actively involved in the Underground Railroad. Her protagonist, John Ames, recalls family stories of past activism from a hundred year vantage point. Due to the gradual, but pervasive homogeneity of his Iowa small town, Ames struggles with implementing his progressive, yet abstract ethics into practice. Ames journals about his specialized “homing in” memories, which show how Iowans’ have struggled with their past and present pursuit of equality and fairness. This essay corroborates Ames’s recollections with an investigation into place, society and the past, as it relates to rural Iowa communities, by exploring the causality of the state’s more liberal legislation and the tension created when actual application comes into play. Research of the past reveals that in the absence of historical touchstones common to other regions, Iowans must fall back upon local stories to create continuity. Robinson’s Gilead follows unspoken customs in Midwestern storytelling by telling about real events, people, times and places. Gilead was published in 2004, yet Robinson’s protagonist lives in 1956. Ames’s examination of the past, and along with his own struggles, caution of the dangers from “resting on the laurels” of one’s forbearers. The invasion of a subconscious racism in 1956 Gilead offers a warning for today’s society, which may have become complacent after the reforms during the 1960s. Yet the blessing Ames eventually is able to give his adult namesake provides a positive model of hope for the future to his young son and wife. Ames’s testimony encourages Iowans and readers in general about the value of contemplating past history since the stories in Gilead demonstrate a sense of eternal connection with humanity. Additionally, Gilead’s “homing in” memories and reflections maintain authenticity according to Iowa analysis while offering hope and encouragement to readers about the value of continuing to strive for fairness and empathy.

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© Copyright 2009 Christina Marie Van Roekel