Marilynne Robinson’s novel “Gilead” found its way into my shopping bag recently as I walked through a used book sale. I had never heard of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner before, yet something caught my eye from the beginning. Plus, having the main character being born in Kansas helped a lot, too.
The main character is John Ames, an elderly pastor who knows he is dying. He has a wife who is significantly his junior and a young son. Because he is aware his end is near, he begins writing a letter to tell his son about himself and the family history so the boy can live a full life grounded in his roots.
This letter is the story presented in “Gilead.” As readers, we have the first glimpse at the letter as Ames intends for his son to read it when he is older. With that, this style is unique as the story does not flow linearly but rather bounces around as Ames’ thoughts meander around different topics, winding back to a storyline.
The story takes place in the mid-20th century in the town of Gilead, Iowa. Pastor Ames’ father and grandfather were both ministers, with his grandfather being acquaintances with John Brown and Jim Lane during Bleeding Kansas. His grandfather preached that the men in his congregation should join the Union in the Civil War.
This iron-and-brimstone preaching impacts Ames’ father and he becomes a pacifist himself, which causes strife between the two men. These two different worldviews influence Ames in his ministry as he is conflicted as to which one is truer to Scripture. Even at his age, he is still working out the theology of both sides, which he expresses in the letter.
Ames married as a young man, but after losing his wife and young daughter, he lived most of his life as a bachelor. During this time, Ames’ best friend and fellow pastor he affectionately calls by his last name of Boughton, names his own son after Ames so that his lineage might continue in a way. The author does not introduce John Ames “Jack” Boughton to the reader until later in the novel, but Ames hints at a dubious character leading up to the introduction.
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It is Jack who causes the most anxiety for Ames as he knows what his namesake did years before, which forced him to flee Gilead in shame. So, when Jack comes back and starts hanging around Ames’ family, the pastor worries. Will the younger man swoop in and steal his family once he dies? What are his true intentions?
Above all, this strife comes down to questioning whether men can change if damnation is set in stone and asking who decides what is true repentance. These questions swirl around Ames’ mind as he learns of more revelations about Jack. This all leads to an ending that made me feel great sympathy for both men.
“Gilead” is a reflective story that — almost paradoxically — is forward-looking at its core. As readers, we are looking back on a man in the 1950s who, in turn, is looking back on a life that began in the previous century and on those of his father and grandfather before that. Yet, all of this reflection is geared toward his son so he can know where he came from and who he is to keep him rooted in his family history for the rest of his life going forward.
Its reflective nature leaves time for the reader to join Paster Ames in looking at what matters most. It’s not an action-packed book, nor is it a book with great suspense or surprises. Instead, it’s a book that knows exactly what it is: a story that highlights the beauty that can be found in the mundane of most people’s lives.
It’s the average, everyday life that “Gilead” champions. For Ames, despite his anxiety and struggles in his old age, he is looking back on a well-lived life, hoping what he has done can provide for those he loves after he is gone. Yet, as a Christian, he knows it was only ever temporary.
That is the most important takeaway from “Gilead,” I think: this life is transient. That’s not something to be scared or terrified about. Instead, it’s something to be used to live and love deeply, boldly and passionately.
As Pastor Ames shows in the story, there is so much to love in this world. Therefore, as he did even in the small town of Gilead, it is better to live a full life and experience all that is possible now so, hopefully, you go into the next life with little regret of things left undone. For myself, especially, that proved to be a valuable reminder.