I’m writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you’ve done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle. You may not remember me very well at all, and it may seem to you to be no great thing to have been the good child of an old man in a shabby little town you will no doubt leave behind. If only I had the words to tell you. (p. 52)
John Ames is a Congregationalist minister living in Gilead, a small Iowa town. Late in life, he was blessed with a wife and son. Now, aware that his heart is failing, he begins writing a long letter to his son, to be read when the son comes of age. Gilead is that letter. In it Ames tells his life story, shares hopes and dreams for his wife and son, and explores matters of faith.
Ames was himself the son of a preacher. Through his writings he tries to come to terms with his strained relationship with his father, now long dead. He mourns his first wife and child, both of whom died too soon, and he rejoices in having found love at an advanced age. But there is one matter that weighs heavily on Ames, and his letter serves as a sort of catharsis.
Ames’ best friend is a Presbyterian minister, Robert Boughton. The two have spent years leading Gilead’s faithful, and developed a deep and lasting friendship. Boughton had several children; Jack, the black sheep of the family, was named after Ames. When Jack Boughton returns to Gilead after a long absence, Ames must face long-suppressed emotion and conflict, and accept his inability to control events after he has passed on.
This is a magnificent novel. The pace is leisurely and conversational, initially masquerading as an amusing portrait of small-town religious life, full of little details like the bizarre Jello salad concoctions served at church suppers. But Gilead is so much more: it is a celebration of life, love, friendship, fathers, sons, and forgiveness.
Marilynne Robinson followed Gilead with Home, which presents the same story from the Boughton family’s perspective. Each book stands on its own, and is beautiful and moving. But the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The richness and depth of this story become apparent on reading both books. These are not to be missed.
Read my review of Home