Sunday, October 17, 2010
Book Review - Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
I don’t always read the Pulitzer winners when the prize is announced. Sometimes I wait. Sometimes I wait a few weeks. Sometimes I wait a few months, and on occasion, I wait a few years. So it was with Gilead, winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and I’m deeply regretting waiting. Oh, well. At least I did read the book, and what a book it is. I’m hard pressed now to find a book to bump off my “all time top ten favorites” because Gilead certainly deserves a spot on that list.
Gilead is set in Gilead, Iowa in 1956 and revolves around a wonderful character named John Ames, a seventy-six-year-old, third generation Congregationalist minister, who has a much younger wife and a seven-year-old son. Ames has recently been diagnosed with angina pectoris, and rightly or wrongly, he believes he hasn’t much time to live. He decides to set down the history of his family for his young son, hoping to leave the boy with a sense of heritage. Though it doesn’t read like one, Gilead is an epistolary novel, but it’s unlike any epistolary novel I’ve ever encountered.
Ames’ wife and son are not his first wife and child. Many years previously, Ames had another wife, Louisa, one closer to his own age at the time. Sadly, Louisa and her newborn baby died in childbirth, leaving John Ames so distraught that he turned away from any further attempts at marital love and devoted himself to his parishioners, instead. His new wife and son are like a gift, and a very surprising one at that. For Ames, this happy marriage and this late-in-life child are holy, like grace, and he feels singularly blessed.
Marilynne Robinson often gives sermons in her church. She knows that Gilead is a land east of Jordan famous for it’s healing balm. She also knows that in the Old Testament, at least, Gilead was also the scene of much war and bloodshed. In the Gilead of her book, John Ames finds both healing and war, he finds both blessings and things that trouble his soul.
As the Rev. John Ames begins his letter to his son, and as we begin reading Gilead, we’re struck with how very “Midwestern idyllic” the town sounds. In Ames’ words, Gilead is “…a cluster of houses strung along a few roads, and a little row of brick buildings with stores in them, and a grain elevator and a water tower with Gilead written on its side, and the post office and the schools and the playing fields and the old train station, which is pretty well gone to weeds now.” It’s a place where people gather “to play catch of an evening, to smell the river, to hear the train pass.”
John Ames isn’t a man to let all this quiet beauty pass him by. He writes:
I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can't believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don't imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely.
But as we read on, we find that all is not idyllic in Ames’ world. There is darkness as well as light. As he continues his letter to his son, Ames remembers the time the Negro church was set on fire and burned down and the terrible plight of a pregnant, unwed girl who lived with her family “…in an isolated house with a lot of mean dogs under the porch.”
As Ames writes his legacy to his small son, he remembers both his father and his grandfather, both Congregationalist preachers and both also named “John Ames,” but preachers who were very different from each other. Ames’ grandfather was full of “fire and brimstone” and he often preached with a pistol tucked into his belt. He left Maine for Kansas to fight for abolition and even rode with John Brown, himself. Our narrator describes his grandfather as “a wild-haired, one-eyed, scrawny old fellow with a crooked beard, like a paintbrush left to dry with lacquer in it.” To say Grandfather Ames was a colorful character is an understatement.
It’s also fair to say that Grandfather Ames was a little too flamboyant for his son, our narrator’s father, also named John Ames and also a preacher. This John Ames was very much a pacifist, a man who believed his father was “preaching men into war,” and who eventually quarreled with that father so bitterly that the older man left his son’s home and returned to Kansas, where he eventually died.
“We live in the ruins of the lives of other generations,” writes our narrator as he struggles to come to terms with his legacy – the fire and brimstone of his grandfather and the pacifism of his father – and as he faces his own moral crisis in the form of his godson, John Ames Boughton, better known as Jack, who has recently returned to Gilead from St. Louis after an absence of several decades. Now in his forties, Jack is the son of John Ames’ best friend, Old Boughton, Gilead’s Presbyterian minister. It was John Ames who baptized Jack in Boughton’s church, but his bond with the boy was always strained. First a prankster, then a ne’er-do-well, Jack is thought by his father and siblings as a man who can do no wrong, but Ames knows better, though his boundless charity compels him to keep silent. Ostensibly, Jack has come home to see his dying father, but John Ames wonders if a more sinister reason could be behind the man’s return.
More specifically, Ames is concerned with Jack Boughton’s attempts to insert himself into his own family life – playing catch with his son and saying things that make Mrs. Ames laugh. And even as he is concerned with his own family, Ames, who is such a thoroughly good man, find it “disgraceful” that he can’t speak to Jack “in a way becoming a pastor.” It isn’t until Jack seeks out his godfather for spiritual advice and counsel that Ames realizes that those who seem the least among us may, perhaps, be angels unaware.
Gilead is an immensely moving novel. It is both a novel and a meditation on the relationship between fathers and sons and the legacy fathers leave to their offspring. It’s also an exploration of the workings of fate and faith and how the two intertwine, on what the measure of a man should be, and what things are worth living for as well as worth dying for. Since the book spans approximately one hundred years – from the 1850s to 1956 – it also provides a look into a sad time in American history, a time of racial inequality and injustice. In fact, it’s this theme that forms the centerpiece, not of the book, itself, but of the book’s plot.
Gilead should be read for its quiet dignity, its humanity, and its exploration of the ties that bind fathers and sons, but no review of the book would be complete without mentioning its gorgeous prose. Like the story, the prose in this book is quiet and unassuming, though it is complex. Robinson writes with deep insight into what it means to be human. Her prose is masterfully controlled and it befits the quiet dignity of the Rev. John Ames. There are no pyrotechnics in this book. Robinson wisely leaves those to other writers. Instead, Robinson’s prose flows over the reader like the balm of Gilead flowed over the wounded. There are sentences in this book the reader will probably never forget – or at least should never forget. One example is when John Ames is writing about grief and loneliness. “I do not remember grief and loneliness,” he says, “so much as I do peace and comfort – grief, but never without comfort, loneliness, but never without peace.”
And Robinson doesn’t forget the details, such as Ames’ love of baseball and fried egg sandwiches – details that allow us entrance into the lives of her characters, the details that make them so dazzlingly, heartbreakingly human. It is details like these that make the reader come to not only understand, but to love the Rev. John Ames. It causes even those whose faith is weak to sigh with contentment and agree with Ames, when, near the book’s end, he declares, “There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.”
Gilead is one of those reasons. It is “holy, like grace,” and the reader feels “singularly blessed.”
Recommended: This is a "must read" for anyone who likes serious, beautifully written fiction.