What would you write if, God forbid, you were faced with the task of writing a letter to a young son you knew you would not live to see grow up? Words of advice, wisdom, heartfelt love, and farewell. Perhaps you would also explore and explain family history and the links you had to a place, in this case, to the secluded town of Gilead, Iowa. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2005 & the National Book Critics Circle Award in the same year, Gilead is this letter, the fictional autobiography of Reverend John Ames who, knowing he is dying of a failing heart at the age of 76, writes this autobiographical letter to his son, who is aged ‘nearly seven’. In the Bible, ‘Gilead’ means ‘hill of testimony or mound of witness’, (Genesis 31:21), and is an apt title for the Reverend’s testimony of a life lead from the pulpit.
For those of you who love to read a writer at the very top of their craft, one who creates and inhabits such a distinctive and pitch-perfect narrative ‘voice’, then Gilead by Marilynne Robinson is for you. Set in 1956, the letter recalls the Reverend’s life and his memories of his father and grandfather – both of them preachers. There are tales of his gun-toting grandfather, a radical abolitionist, who served as a Chaplain for the Union Army during the Civil War, and his pacifist father. Needless to say these two characters rarely saw eye-to-eye. Indeed, early in the story, the Reverend recalls his and his father’s search for his grandfather’s lost grave, a search that his father feels compelled to undertake owing to the final harsh words between them. Robinson’s drawing of characters is superb; the grandfather is “a wild-haired, one-eyed, scrawny old fellow with a crooked beard, like a paintbrush left to dry with lacquer in it.” Many of the early highlights of the book relate to the grandfather’s eccentricities, including his constant pilfering of family monies to give to the poor, even when his own family had nothing to give.
This is a tale of fathers and sons, both human and religious, as the Reverend relates his own family’s relationships as well as those of his neighbour and good friend, Old Boughton, also a minister. We follow the Reverend’s internal struggle with his theology, revealed through a number of stories, such as his brother Edward’s atheism and his father’s loss of faith – both of whom leave this ‘backwater’ of a town. The Reverend also recalls the loss of his first wife and child through illness, and his childhood loneliness, which are set against the bounty of Old Boughton’s growing family. Yet the counterpoint to all this loss is the love the Reverend finds with a young woman, a woman who becomes his wife and bears him his own son, the son for whom the letter is addressed.
There is a recurring sense of the Prodigal Son too, as Old Boughton’s estranged son and the Reverend’s namesake, John Ames Boughton, better known as Jack, returns to the town. It is the arrival of Jack together with a past that still casts shadows over the two families that drives much of the tension in the story. We read the Reverend’s exploration and struggle of what Jack means to him, as a man of the cloth and, more directly, as a man. He tries not to judge Jack, tries to forgive him his past actions, but he struggles with his presence, his perceived meanness, and his past – a past that stretches back to his earliest days, for it was the Reverend John Ames who baptised the infant Jack. He is even moved to consider at one point whether it was a ‘cold’ baptism, one that in some way affected the person that Jack was to come, and is so doubting that he decides that he carries a burden of guilt about it. The Reverend is troubled by the nagging question of whether he should warn his wife and his son about Jack and the harm he might do them, as he notes the growing relaxation that Jack and his wife share; it is, for Jack, a state of being that is unique to her presence. Even Jack’s father, old Boughton, comes over to warn the Reverend, for ‘something is not right with him’. But it is Reverend John Ames who eventually, after several failed attempts, finds out the secret truth of Jack, a secret so powerful that it cannot be shared with Old Boughton in his frail health for fear it might kill him. And it is this truth that finally enables John Ames to forgive Jack and to settle his own stresses, both theological and familial; they become reconciled enough for the Reverend to offer Jack a blessing before his final entries in this diarised story are made.
Gilead has a wise and slow rhythm, and it takes a little time as a reader to fall into step with a book-long letter, but once made, the full splendour of the narrative – and its layering – can be experienced. There is such lucid beauty in the writing, in its contemplative exploration of being, and the pensive faith and doubt of Reverend John Ames. The ending is touching, the last few lines of a long letter to a son who may grow up to want to leave this little town of Gilead, just as the Reverend’s father left, just as his brother Edward left too, indeed just as many have left. And that is ok; but for the Reverend John Ames, he will gladly sleep within its soil, for it is a place he loves. It is apt that the Reverend’s thoughts often revolve around ‘grace’, the grace of the world where “there are pleasures to be found wherever you look”, the grace of being – for it is grace that is to be found on every page of Gilead; it is a wonderful book.
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson