Robinson Captures Iowa Psyche

Marilynne Robinson. 2004. Gilead: A Novel. New York: Picador.[1]

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

My clearest memory of November of 1974 when I returned to finish out the last two years of college at Iowa State University involved the need to learn the fine art of conversation. When offered a bar or cookie and a cup of coffee, one had to respond with a lengthy discourse on topics roughly summarized as small talk. This would not be gossip, nor items fit to appear in the Oskaloosa Herald, but mostly glimpses of life to acquaint those present with family matters missed due to the passage of time and travesty of distance. No one out East tutored me in coffee time etiquette 1.0 so for this class, required for graduation, I proved a slow learner.

Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Gilead,takes the form of a lengthy letter from John Ames, a third-generation congregational pastor, to his son. Ames is dying of a heart condition at the age of sixty-seven while his son, the only child of a younger second wife, Lila, is still a preteen.

Gilead, Iowa

Gilead is an unincorporated town in southwest Iowa just south of Fontanelle along route 92 in Adair County. I last drove through this region in 1982 on a trip from Oskaloosa, Iowa to Omaha, Nebraska while I was researching beef packing plants for my dissertation. This area left two distinct impressions on me. First, between Indianola and Omaha along route 92 one could find no McDonald’s restaurants, my measure of an area’s poverty. Second, along the way, I had to stop to round up some pigs that got loose from a local farm—I never did see the farmer—and had wandered into the road.

For purposes of the novel, Gilead’s location put it close to the Missouri state line where Ames’ grandfather had participated in partisan fighting leading up to the Civil War. West of Gilead is Nebraska, but west of Missouri is Kansas Ames’ grandfather later absconded and died. Ames’ father also left Gilead to retire in the South. The fact that John Ames faithfully remained in Gilead and retired as one of its pastors speaks to his grit and the strength of his faith.


My father’s hometown of Oskaloosa, population 10,000, has not grown in a generation and occasionally appears on television as a location kids grow up and leave. Oskaloosa, with its McDonalds, high school, hospital, and indoor mall, is a big city compared to Gilead. Abject poverty is a theme in the book and Gilead remains a metaphor for poverty.

Robinson makes many references to this poverty. One that sticks in my mind is: “I am old enough to remember when we used to go out in the brush, a lot of us, and spread out in a circle, and then close in, scaring the rabbits along in front of us, till they were trapped there in the center and then we would kill them with sticks and clubs. That was during the Depression and people were hungry.”(198)

Robinson’s gift as a writer arises in her ability to paint one word picture after another.

John Ames Boughton

Another important theme in Robinson’s writing is the relationship between John Ames and his best friend’s son, John Ames Boughton. The best friend, a local Presbyterian pastor who grew up with John Ames, is normally just referred to a Boughton, but the son is also called Jack. As suggested by his name, John Ames Boughton has a father-son relationship with John Ames and is estranged from his biological father.

He plays out the rebellious pastor’s kid (PK) role virtually his whole life. For example, we read:

“His transgressions were sly and lonely, and this became truer as he grew up. I believe I said earlier that he did not teal in any convectional sense, but by that I meant he stole things of no value except to the people he stole them from. There was no sense in what he, unless his purpose was to cause a maximum of embarrassment and risk a minimum of retribution.”(182)

As a teen, this kid impregnated a local girl and later in life he took a black woman as his wife. Perhaps his worst sin was not being available when his mother and father died.

Ironically, this rebellious PK is so polite that strangers, including his future wife, assume he is a pastor. John Ames refers to him as a son and the boy refers to Ames as Papa. This odd relationship seems like a counterpoint to Ames himself, who never played out the PK role and remained a faithful pastor in the face of much adversity.


Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Gilead,is an engaging read that won the Pulitzer Prize. I picked up the book as a summer read because I have spent a lot of time in Iowa and heard that Robinson taught at the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop.[2]The conversational style of Robinson’s writing reminds me of that of my own grandparents and their siblings in Iowa. Some may not catch all her biblical and theological allusions, but for me they added a depth seldom seen in Christian literature.


[1] [2]

Robinson Captures Iowa Psyche

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Remembering Kaffietijd

Cover for Called Along the Way
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
Six days you shall labor, and do all your work,
but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God.
(Exod 20:8)

Remembering Kaffietijd

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

More than a snack, coffee time (kaffietijd in Dutch) structured our lives and became an institution where my fondest memories of family life unfolded and I got a glimpse of heaven.


On weekdays, at nine in morning, at three in the afternoon, and around eight in the evening, My grandmother, Gertrude Hiemstra, prepared coffee for the adults, cocoa for the kids, and goodies for everyone. The goodies included homemade lemon bars, chocolate chip cookies, or strawberry short cake topped with ice cream. Choice, we always got a choice.

Whether knitting, feeding the calves, or pulling weeds in the garden, everyone paused, came in the house, got cleaned up, and talked. No one was excluded no one; everyone was invited; and conversation was required.


On Sundays, coffee time got more involved. No one dared to skip Sunday school or leave town before lunch at grandma’s house. So we attended church at nine-fifteen, but took a break for snacks during Sunday school. After church, we normally changed from our Sunday best into more comfortable clothes before lunch. After changing one thing led to another and, being kids, by the time the adults called us for lunch, we might be hiding in the attic or chasing each other around the yard. Lunch escaped our attention, but the adults bribed us to come to lunch with reminders of coffee time.

These Sunday coffee times might be delayed until after the cuckoo clock chimed at four o’clock. A late coffee time almost always involved better snacks requiring fold up trays and breaking out the card tables, which might be used later for playing hearts or board games. On occasion, the piano might be played and ice cream churned by hand. When we complained about helping churn, the adults reminded us that “kids today are so spoiled by that store-bought ice cream.” 

Special Occasions

Sunday coffee time became more formal when we celebrated birthdays among my grandparents’ siblings. Because both grandma and grandpa had eight siblings and came from Dutch families who lived around Pella, Iowa,1 their siblings pooled birthday celebrations several times a year and would collectively make the twenty mile trip to Oskaloosa. When the “Pella crowd” visited, a leisurely three or four hour visit followed where no one hurried during the heavenly banquet and everyone naturally wore their Sunday best. Formalities took distinctive phases, which moved from greetings, to eating, to discussions and board games, and then to goodbyes.

Greeting Phase

The greeting phase involved meeting people as they came in. After the formal greetings, the women gathered in the kitchen to properly set out their signature dishes, such as my grandmother’s steaming hot, chicken and noodles. Meanwhile, the men sat in the living room talking about the latest news or the market prices for corn, soybeans, hogs, or cattle. The kids might run this way or that, but often we retreated to the basement to horse around without soiling our clothes.

Eating Phase

The eating phase always started with a blessing for the food. When my uncle, Pastor John, visited, we might be treated to a few introductions and announcements (or a scripture reading) followed by a pastoral prayer. Otherwise, my grandfather, Frank, simply gave thanks.

Having blessed the food, we grabbed a plate and the family crowd snaked in line around the kitchen helping ourselves to the sandwiches, casseroles, apple sauce, and potato salad. Grandma normally served a lime or strawberry punch—iced in a crystal bowl, ladled with a crystal dipper, and enjoyed in a crystal cup. Then, the adults assembled in the living room seated in front of a folding up tray with their plates and cups carefully balanced. Meanwhile, the kids sat around the kitchen table and ate together unsupervised. The women later served coffee with the dessert.

Discussion Phase

The end of dessert marked the beginning of pointed discussions. Great Uncle John, the local county commissioner, frequently chided me about the cushy government job that I might get after graduation. Of course, I had other ideas. At one point in my sophomore year, for example, I announced my intention to study comparative literature, instead of agricultural economics like my father. Silence followed.
After a couple of embarrassing seconds, Great Aunt Nelly inquired: “What is comparative literature?”

With a questioning tone like that, I figured out before my next visit what I really wanted to study.

Some discussions took a less serious path.

You have heard, of course, about that new government program that they cooked up in Washington? Really? Do tell. In the future, social security checks will be issued along with a prescription for birth control pills.


Goodbye Phase

While everyone took part in discussions, board games marked an informal end. Those less interested in playing hearts, domino’s, or board games headed for the door, as regular as Grandfather’s daily bowl of All Bran cereal soaked with chocolate milk. Goodbyes then proceeded until everyone had said goodbye to everyone else. Weather permitting; the goodbyes included walking the most distant travelers out to their cars.

As Years Went By

As the years went by, coffee time slowly died out.

My parents struggled to imitate coffee time when my grandparents visited, but practice makes perfect and neglect leaves one neglectful. Interruptions during attempts at coffee time made conversation difficult; activities likewise cut into the leisure time. On the farm, a Christmas might last for two weeks; in the city, Christmas became a meal and afternoon discussion. We aspired to being relaxed and hospitable, but strived ever more diligently to keep our jobs, pay our bills, and advance our careers in the face of ever-easier, downward mobility. As my grandparents aged, travel distances seemed longer, schedules got more involved, and visits became rare.

Coffee time lived on during visits to Iowa. When my grandfather turned ninety, he lost his driver’s license after having a fender-bender. So when I visited, Frank often requested that I drive him from Oskaloosa to Pella to visit his younger sister, Nelly, the family historian and a live wire. Nelly usually voiced what others only thought. A quick call and Nelly would invite the surviving Pella crowd over to her place for coffee. Thirty minutes later on our arrival, out came the folding trays, the home-made snacks, and the coffee.

Born in 1898, Frank journeyed through three centuries during his 102 years. With his passing, Oskaloosa dropped off my itinerary. Since then, travel has become infrequent and the memory of coffee time became elusive.

Hiemstra Picnic

Coffee time lives on in the Hiemstra family picnic the first Saturday of August each year in Pella’s West Market Park. Picnic tables shaded under the shelter are cool and I cherish seeing distant relatives. The coffee and the snacks remain the same, but the folding trays, the leisure time, and my grandparents no longer accompany us, but I look forward to the day they will.

More than a snack, coffee time (or Kaffietijd as the old folks used to say) built a palace in time2 that lives on in the memory of my youth.


Also see:  Looking Back 

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Ever Present, Snow, and Grandpa’s Farm in Iowa

ShipOfFools_web_10042015The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. (Ps 23:1 ESV)

Ever Present

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Time awake. No tomorrow; no yesterday. A continuous present.

Every waking hour is new; Mom is there.

I am happy or alone. Loneliness is being in bed looking out over the covers.

The alligator under my bed comes out at night after the records play.
The alligator chases me around the room and runs away when Dad comes.


And the LORD God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them. (Gen 3:21 ESV)


By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Snow is for jumping in and for making into balls and throwing.

Mom, why do I need a jumpsuit, a knit cap, and mittens?

… Because the porch is cold and it is even colder outside.

But I don’t like mittens. Why can’t I wear gloves like you and Dad?

… These mittens were a gift made for you by your grandmother—see she made attached them together with a string so that you won’t loose them. When you get older, we will get you some gloves—gloves are made from leather and you can’t use them to make snowballs without ruining them. So for now, you need to use mittens!

Mom, I can put my shoes on myself! …


Now the LORD said to Abram, Go from your country and your kindred and
your father’s house to the land that I will show you.
(Gen 12:1 ESV)

Grandpa’s Farm in Iowa

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

I’m going to Grandpa’s farm in Iowa.

Wandering up and down the aisles on the California Zephyr. People asked me and I told them—

I’m going to Grandpa’s farm in Iowa.

From Emeryville to Ottumwa. Snow on the Rockies; the deep ravines; the scary dark tunnel. But mostly, I remembered that—

I’m going to Grandpa’s farm in Iowa.

Why did people always lean forward in their seats to ask me—where y’a going?—and smile when I tell them?

Why did I always smile in thinking about it?

Maybe it was the cats. Married student housing did not allow pets. Besides, cats got to have birds and mice and wild stuff to eat…

Maybe it was the mulberry trees. Berry trees are special and especially hard to find in the city. Somehow, I don’t think city folks even know about mulberries—they seem more like blueberry people.

Maybe it was Grandma’s chicken and noodles or the box of chocolate chip cookies in the fridge. Mom fixed some great macaroni and cheese, but store-bought cookies are always dry and crunchy.

I smile thinking on the farm, ‘cause there were pumps to pump; snow drifts to jump in; relatives to visit; Christmas church services to dress up for. Everyday was an adventure on the farm, but the reason I smile is because on the farm I felt special.

I’m going to Grandpa’s farm in Iowa.


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