Saturday, March 28, 2009

Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, had me hanging on every word. It's not the kind of novel I could read bits and pieces of during stolen moments; it demanded my undivided attention because of its earnestness and introspection.

This novel is a long letter written by an elderly man, The Reverand John Ames, to his young son, whom he will not see into adulthood. I found Reverand Ames to be a fascinating character because he knew himself so very well, exploring his feelings with rare objectivity and honesty. Ames lived through some very hard times, had a couple harrowing experiences, and lived through a long period of loneliness. Then, in his old age, he encountered unexpected joy, which served as his motivation for writing his story.

His many lonely years set in after his young wife died in childbirth, and though his congregation surrounded him always, providing meals and such, there was an emptiness in his life that was perhaps magnified by the sight of his closest and oldest friend's large family, that of The Reverand Boughton. When this friend surprises Ames by having him christen his son John Ames Boughton, Reverand Ames is overcome with feelings he has trouble dealing with.

However, Rev. Ames spends most of his time writing his son about the history of their family in Gilead, Iowa, about his father and eccentric grandfather, both of whom were ministers. The stories he has to tell about his family, particularly the anecdotal ones about his grandfather, are unique and sometimes downright funny. Rev. Ames's missive eventually stops being a history and turns more philosophical when he tells of how he met his second wife, a young woman who appeared in church one day, a stranger in town, and how it felt to have what he thought he'd never have: a wife and child, gifts he'd never dared to hope for in his old age.

Towards the end of Rev. Ames's writing, Jack Ames Boughton, his now middle-aged namesake, has suddenly appeared back in town after a long absence, and the elderly reverand gradually admits to all the mixed feelings he has kept locked away about his friend's eldest child. Jack Boughton was a strangely lonely child with a mean streak, a bright but extremely mischievous kid who escaped a lot of trouble simply because people respected his father so much. Jack's entire family always loved him, bent over backwards to take care of him, and Rev. Ames bit his tongue quite often, rather than let his father in on some of the hurtful pranks Jack had played on him.

At first, Rev. Ames is suspicious of Jack's reason for coming back, and even fears him, pondering the notion of warning his wife, agonizing over whether it was fair or not to still be so distrustful. It becomes apparent, though, that Jack is very disturbed about something, and wants very much to speak to Rev. Ames. After many unsuccessful attempts at conversation, the two men are gradually able to speak to one another again, and when Rev. Ames is able to work through his feelings and talk to Jack, he finds out what has occurred in the younger man's life and gains an understanding of Jack he'd never had. It's a revelation, it's like he's been granted another gift in his old age. Even though there's not much the elderly minister can do for Jack, they have made their peace, a burden has been taken off Rev. Ames before he departs, and Jack literally departs Gilead with the blessing he never felt before.

Gilead is a beautiful book that reads like an authentic journal of one Rev. John Ames of Gilead, Iowa, particularly because he refers so much to scripture and explores his own interpretation of it. In the end, I sincerely hoped Rev. Ames's son grew up to cherish this account, and I also wished to know what happened in Jack Boughton's life, and hoped that Rev. Ames's son and Jack would somehow stay in each other's lives. I highly recommend this book.

This is just an interesting aside: LibraryThing has this interesting widget that's called The Unsuggester, which predicts the titles that I am least likely to have in my library. Interestingly, almost all the books that came up for me are religious ones. Huh. No gory stories, or romances?


Tom & Icy said...

Sounds interesting by the way you describe it. That would be a fascinating way to write, sort of like a writer and actor combined because they are pretending to be a fictional person and making that person seem very real to us.

Doug said...

Interesting. One of my favorite novels, Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks is also a long letter. I actually thought Banks handled the letterness of the book pretty badly, but I loved the book.

Go Hawkeyes!

Ariel the Thief said...

Gilead is where Roland is from!

TLP said...

Sounds good!