If I had to sum up the experience of reading Gilead in one sentence, it would be this: I didn’t notice that there are no chapters in the book until I was on page 132.
That says nothing whatsoever about what the book is about, but it does exemplify just how quickly and totally you get sucked in, where you just read and read and don’t notice anything else– like the lack of chapters– because you’re so engrossed with the words on the page.
Gilead is the second novel by Marilynne Robinson (and published 24 years after her first one) and it is the first-person story of Reverend John Ames as his health declines in old age, written as one long letter to his son. He knows he will be dead soon, and since he married his second wife late in life (after being widowed at a young age) and his son is still very young and he won’t be around to guide him as he grows up, he wants to leave him something to both know who is father was and hopefully know something about life too. John Ames talks directly to his son in this letter, giving him advice and also going deep into their family history.
The plot of the book– and therefore the letter– is interrupted a bit halfway through when an unexpected character from the past shows up, the literal prodigal son of a good family friend with a shady past, and begins spending a lot of time with his wife and son. John Ames, as a Congregationalist pastor in a long line of Congregationalist pastors, has made it a personal and professional goal of his to see the good and holiness in everyone, and he finds himself struggling with this particular thing as he watches a man he does not trust insert himself more and more into his family’s life.
*Gilead* utterly surprised me with its sheer, quiet beauty. Friends had been recommending it to me for years and it won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, so I was expecting it to be good, but it was not at all what I expected in terms of content. Knowing that it was about a pastor in a small town, I expected it to be full of controversy and corruption and oppression, the way most books about small town churches are (think: *The Scarlet Letter*, et al). Even with the mysterious character who shows up midway through the book, the protagonist takes such a measured approach to it, going so far as to recognize when he is being unfair, that it never veers into the territory of the melodramatic. The Reverend John Ames is much more of a scholarly man of faith than he is a dogmatic one.
The book is poignant– talking about serious issues such as slavery and war and segregation, all put into the context of John Ames’ father being a Christian pacifist and his grandfather being a radical abolitionist actively involved in violent acts before and during the Civil War– and philosophical, exploring various Christian theological questions as well as whether or not atheism can serve a purpose to those of faith. Although there is plenty of action and plot, these theological questions and how John Ames explores them creates both the heart and the backbone of the novel. One of the best things about the book, in my opinion, is that you do not have to be Protestant, or even Christian or religious, I don’t think, in order to appreciate and gain something from reading it. Although it’s talking about theology, it is just as much an exploration of the infinite beauty of life.
This is perhaps exemplified nowhere more clearly than in one of my favorite passages. John Ames is reflecting back on a trip he took to Kansas with his father as a boy, searching for his grandfather’s grave. This was before Kansas was really settled and they were traveling on foot through desolate landscapes, very little to eat or drink, a physically exhausting and emotionally difficult journey. They find the grave, and his father (who is also a reverend) starts to pray. Young John Ames looks up to the sky and realizes that a full moon is rising just as the sun is setting, and that both are hanging in balance in the sky. It moves him so much that he interrupts his father’s prayer by kissing his hand and they watched the sun and the moon float in the sky together. After standing there quietly for a long time, his father says, “I would never have thought this place could be beautiful. I’m glad to know that.” (p. 15)
That, to me, is really what makes this book worth reading– it forces the reader to look around, question everything, and notice the beauty of the mundane. And if that’s not worth your time, what is?