Cultural Inspirations from The Long Way Home

Gamache kept his large hand splayed over the cover of the book, forcing it shut as though trapping the story inside.

Then he lifted his hand and showed it to [Clara], but when she reached out for it, Gamache drew it back. Not far, barely noticeable. But far enough.

“The Balm in Gilead,” she read the title, and searched her memory. “There’s a book called Gilead. I read it a few years ago. By Marilynne Robinson. Won the Pulitzer.”

“Not the same,” Gamache assured her.

The Long Way Home (37-38, Trade Paper Edition)

There is a Balm in GileadThough not the same as the 2004 book, Louise does acknowledge Robinson’s novel as “remarkable” and, in fact, two pages later in The Long Way Home Clara quotes directly from Robinson’s work, “I’ll pray that you grow up a brave man in a brave country. I will pray you find a way to be useful.”

And while Robinson’s novel itself is set in a fictional town in Iowa, the title was influenced by the Biblical town of Gilead which means “hill of testimony” and was situated east of the Jordan River.

Gilead is first mentioned in the Old Testament (Jeremiah 8:22) and the actual “balm” refers to a healing salve that was indigenous to the area. In the New Testament the “balm” becomes a symbol for Christ himself, who God sends to heal the suffering of his people. Those of you who have read The Long Way Home know that the notion of healing is paramount to the story. The hymnal that Gamache covets is almost certainly from Washington Glass’s book, The Sinner’s Cure, first published in 1854.

Glass claimed “There is a Balm in Gilead” as his own but that is unlikely. The composition was probably drawn from a traditional African American spiritual, that was passed down orally for generations, before Glass transcribed it. The hymn has since gone on to be recorded by the likes of Paul Robeson, Nina Simone and Mahalia Jackson.

“The Balm in Gilead” is also mentioned in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven.

Is there — is there balm in Gilead? — tell me — tell me, I implore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

The Raven, not unlike The Long Way Home, is a tale of devotion, memory, and again healing — the balm. And lost loved ones — for Poe’s unnamed narrator, it’s Lenore. For Louise’s Clara, it’s Peter.

Discussion on “Cultural Inspirations from The Long Way Home

  1. Rebecca says:

    Is this not the book that Gamache found on the bedside of his parents on the night that they died? Could it be that he himself is the Balm to a world gone mad but is stuck not being able to read past the marker in the book that marks the place his father stopped reading? Gamache is filled with pain and is trying to heal his wounds, both physical and emotional from the loss of his parents and the loss of his place in the world. While this story focuses on Clara and her search for Peter, it is Gamache who ultimately must find the courage to heal enough to step forward again,

    • Mary says:

      I love your interpretation, Rebecca. It is how I understood things as well.

    • Peggy J Crawford says:

      Insightful and very on point for me, Rebecca. Louise’s books are deep wells with many rivers feeding into the whole. I can read them over and over and still find new things to challenge me and cause me to think.

    • Marcia Van Note says:

      What a lovely thought, Rebecca, I do find Gamache a balm for so many others in these books and a calming influence for me as I read them.

  2. Mary-Howell Martens says:

    I’m sorry, but you really missed the mark on this one. There is great historical/Old Testament significance and documentation to the Balm in Gilead, and that information is readily accessible through Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balm_of_Gilead. In the Christian tradition and the spiritual/song mentioned, it is clear that the ancient Balm of Gilead, the oil of the balsam, long prized for its healing properties, is being compared to the healing power of a faith in Jesus. While Marilynne Robinson’s books about the town of Gilead are reasonably good reading, they are mere blips as compared to the ancient and biblical tradition. It does not have to be a religious discussion to acknowledge that throughout history, a combination of religious faith and appropriate herbs have been the primarily treatments for mental anguish.

  3. Mary-Howell Martens says:

    can we get a ‘bistro discussion’ on the real history behind Samuel Champlain and ‘Bury your dead’? Specifically, is there documented history about where he was buried, and whether he was a Huguenot. After listening to the book a second time, it really left me wondering how much of the ‘history’, people and events presented was part of the novel, how much was popular conjecture, and how much was actual real history.

    • Joan Keller Maresh says:

      Thanks for your questions. I am rereading all of the books and am almost finished with Bury your Dead. I was wondering the same thing about whether Champlain was real and whether some of questions surrounding him are true or part of the fiction of the novel.

      • Maisie says:

        Champlain was absolutely real. As there are many places named for him in the region, both US and Canada. Lake Champlain is the 6th largest fresh water lake in US – and it is also in CAN. There is at least one town named for him in NY, 45 minutes from Montreal.

    • Eileen Conway says:

      I would like to “second” this question which also arose during my own reading?

  4. Norfleete says:

    I would like to know if, in fact, there is a little book titled Balm in Gilead, which Gamache took from his father’s bedside and is keeping in his pocket.

  5. Maelou Baxter says:

    From Wikipedia, although I doubt this is the book referenced by Louise Penny – Balm in Gilead: Journey of a Healer is Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot’s 1988 biography of her mother, Dr. Margaret Morgan Lawrence, who was one of the first black women to graduate from Cornell University and Columbia University’s School of Medicine.

  6. Charlene says:

    I think a theme throughout the Gamache books is healing: Gamache seeks healing from all the violence he has witnessed and, yes, committed; Jean-Guy seeks healing from the same, plus addiction and the failure of his first marriage; Clara from the constant wounding from her husband Peter, who loved her but could not help himself from undermining her; and Ruth from being a mortally sensitive person struggling with mental illness and addiction, yet who is also a highly respected poet. We are pulled forward in the series by the hope that all of these and others will find the healing they seek, and from book to book it partially happens yet seems to be forever out of reach.

  7. Julie says:

    I, too, love the idea that Gamache is the balm. I know that his not being able to read on further than his father did has such an emotional pull on me. The idea of going on without him is daunting. And yet, finally, inevitably, Gamache must do so. Gamache is the best of men, and as such, seems to me, that he must go further than his father. His father was labeled a coward, something which stung Armand when he was younger, but of course, he has been vilified by so many in the Surete’s establishment, that he rises above any such epithets. As time has passed, and he has been proven right, the word, while still hurting, doesn’t contain the sting it used to. He has further yet to go, and I, for one, intend to be there for the whole ride.

  8. Cindi M says:

    Thanks for this. I just finished reading (and re-reading) The Long Way Home. Healing, belief, deception, betrayal, but ultimately comfort and a way and place to heal. Three Pines is a healing place, but not for Peter. Some people never realize who they are because they are not brave. Some of us have to be hit up side the head by life and the consequences of our choices before we do.

  9. Victoria says:

    I am just going to read all the books over again…I see I have missed a lot…

  10. Celia Lewis says:

    My goal next year is to start once more at the beginning, and read this series all over again! Her books are multi-layered with complex characters in an unusual setting. Love them to bits! Oh to have more time…
    Absolutely love the comments here, so insightful indeed!

    • Cathy Mitchell says:

      I have been thinking about doing the same thing, Cindy. I have a friend who went on a walk/tour in Quebec last week. I can’t wait to hear about it. I would love to reread and then go through the archives and then plan a trip!! Armand Gamache brings a wonderful sense of healing to my life. As does Louise Penny.

  11. Cindy Marshall says:

    I am loving reading all the insightful thoughts put out on this subject. I think perhaps we are all in our own way looking for a balm of Gilead and maybe that is one of the reasons that Louise’s books resonate so strongly with us.There are so many elements evolving within each story but, for me, the characters and setting of Theee Pines bring a sense of warmth and peace. perhaps that is a balm for me in this crazy world.

  12. Cathy Mitchell says:

    OOPS. I mushed together and replied to both Cindy and Celia posts

  13. Bettie Westphall says:

    This has been a summer full of stress and demands. The day I felt I could no longer cope, I began, again, The Cruelest Month. This is the third in order of my first reread. Such a balm for my weary body and soul. Louise has led me to C. S Lewis’s “Surprised by Joy” and a small book, which I couldn’t find today, on the Biblical “Balm”from the late 1800s. Paul, your pieces,and the readers reactions, add so much to this whole wonderful ” Thing” brought by this special author and human being.

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