It is 1956, and towards the end of Reverend John Ames’ life he begins a letter to his young son. Marilynne Robinson’s 2004 novel Gilead takes us to Iowa and the life of a gentle man reflecting on his family, his community, and his small town. With a quiet authority and firm intelligence, Ames’ letter to his son desperately tries to distill all the lessons he feels like a boy should grow up with that his death will prevent him from passing on in person.
The letter opens with “I told you last night that I might be gone sometime…you reached up and put your fingers on my lips and gave me that look I never in my life saw on any other face besides your mother’s”. He is an old father with a very young son, acutely aware of all of the life he is not going to see of his son, trying to capture all the lessons and stories his son will miss out on when he’s gone.
It is established early that Ames is a writer, a sermon a week for decades, and a journaler; boxes and boxes of his handwritten words fill the house and are now literally physically inaccessible to him. Sometimes his young wife searches through, presents him with a sermon she has found, wordlessly leaving it for him to interpret why this one matters to her at this time. There is something sadly symbolic about this.
The reflections of an old man is tonally difficult to sustain throughout the entire length of a novel, but there is something quietly mesmerising about it. There is also a very gentle preaching throughout, with significant reflections on spirituality, the scriptures, and how a life lived does justice to these.
“It was as if she were renouncing the world itself just in order to make nothing of some offence to her. Such a prodigal renunciation, that empty-handed prodigality I remember from the old days. I have nothing to give you, take and eat. Ashy biscuit, summer rain, her hair falling wet around her face. If I were to multiply the splendours of the world by two the splendours as I fell them – I would arrive at an idea of heaven very unlike anything you see in the old paintings.”
This time spent on the scriptures is keeping in character with Ames, and I found the moments where he saw his actual lived experience as the defining moments of his life genuinely touching, but the musing on institutional religion got rather dull and felt meaningless, connected to character but not to story. I suppose if you have a Reverend as a father you expect some preaching in his final letter to you.
But a storyline, such as it is, emerges from the reflections. Interspersed with the family history, the musings on life, the lessons from the scriptures, comes Ames’ best friend’s son, returning to town as his father is dying. What this means and the impact that it has is hinted at, avoided, and then suddenly revealed confessional-style, from Ames to his child in this letter.
I did not love this book as much as I loved Robinson’s Housekeeping, but there is a quiet power in this one that is worth admiring. It is pitch perfect, unforced, and humble.