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)
Though 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.