Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
At first I was disappointed. "No, I am not interested in the life of a elderly preacher in 1950ies Iowa," I thought. "Why did I think I would be?" But I recognized an accomplished prose style that was worth reading no matter what. Then I found I was reading with more interest, recognizing the suspense, understanding the characters, identifying with the 80-year-old father who knew he had heart disease and was not likely in any case to live to see his young son grown. He wanted to pass on values and understanding and history, not only of himself and his family but of the country and the region and his church. I understood his impulse to write it down for his son—I once wrote a 90-page memoir of childhood to give to my own children at Christmas because I wanted to pass on what I remembered, also of Iowa as it happens.
Because I also found something personal of interest. I didn't think much about where in Iowa Gilead was supposed to be. I assumed it was a fictitious town. Then the narrator mentioned Tabor, a town I knew about. I actually lived my formative years (from about 3 to 12) in a small town not far from Tabor. We moved to Shenandoah, Iowa in the middle of WWII, from Chicago to a small town I remember as buried amid cornfields that spread out on all sides. There was also a river that flooded occasionally but dramatically (once my father had to move his airplane in the middle of the night because the tiny airport flooded). I thought of that river when John Ames (the narrator of Gilead) mentioned walking by the river. Later he mentioned the West Nishnabotna and it was the same river. A different fork possibly. Tabor was somewhat west and north of us.
One of the historical issues in the book was the move of the grandfather to Kansas during the time when settlers fought wars to keep slavery out of Kansas—in contrast to Missouri which was admitted as a slave state. That part of Iowa—immediately north of Missouri—had been a refuge for slaves fleeing Missouri (like fleeing to Ohio from Kentucky in Uncle Tom's Cabin) and a hotbed of liberalism. I suppose if I'd lived in Iowa longer I'd have got interested in that historical period and been proud of it.