Gilead, 1956. John Ames is dying. In his seventies, the preacher knows his time on earth is coming to an end. He should be ready to meet his Heavenly Father but truthfully, as a father to a young son, he doesn’t feel quite ready yet. There is so much he would still like to share with his child. And so, he sits down to write a letter. A kind of journal to talk to his son from beyond the grave. The dying man is from a line of preaching John Ameses that leads from the civil war into the mid-20th century. His grandfather was fought with the Union in the war, lost an eye and possibly is mind to the violence but has strong ideals and stronger beliefs. His father had convictions just as powerful but ardently pacifist, leading to deep rifts between father and son. Meanwhile, our John believes just as deeply and devoutly as his forefathers, but his philosophy is much quieter. His actions are guided by a selfless care for others and a ferocious love of life. And that delightful passion is the central theme he pours into the letter to his son. John Ames records his daily life and his family history in minute detail. It is a quiet story about the pleasures the world offers us every day but slowly a conflict, surrounding his best friend’s prodigal son, emerges and the preacher reveals some deeply human emotions he would rather have kept hidden away.
Gilead is a quiet novel with little plot, but it is full of life and emotion. Through John Ames, Marilynne Robinson explores love and compassion, jealousy and fear, race and class, courage and duty. She is also unabashedly passionate about language and the significance of words. As a result, her prose is rich and impactful, consciously crafted and yet authentically fluent. Part religious exploration, part philosophical essay this novel is before all else deeply and honestly humane. Robinson and her protagonist profess their love of life while facing death without fear or regret. They get excited about the prospect of children growing into their own and living life to its fullest while sharing a deep concern about what they might face in the world. They are as fascinated by the beginning of life as they are by its end. The novel is so unobtrusively thoughtful, it is one of those books that grows better over time – reading this was more than enjoyable, but it has been in the weeks (and now months) since I finished it, that some of its wisdoms and meanings have really taken hold of me. I believe you can be as deeply religious as John Ames is or as non-religious as I am and learn a lot from this book.
First published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004