A balm in Gilead, part 1: life and death

I’m just about finished reading one of the most profound and moving books I’ve come across in (at least) the last 10 years: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. In fact, the only works of fiction that have affected me as much as this book are Mark Helprin’s A Winter’s Tale and Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams. Listing these three books in one paragraph makes me realize that, though they are very different, they all revolve around the nature of time and place, the nature of man and the nature —as Lightman/Einstein would put it — of “The Old One.”

Gilead is set in the mid-1950s in Gilead, Iowa and is written as a letter from an elderly pastor to the young son who came to him very late in life and who he knows he will never get to see grow up and become a man. The pastor, Rev. John Ames, has lived his entire life in Gilead, pastoring the church his father pastored before him. Ames is, in fact, the third generation of preachers in his line. His grandfather was a firebrand abolitionist in Kansas, known to preach with a pistol stuck in his belt and thought to have ridden with John Brown and, perhaps, to have killed a federal soldier who was pursuing the Reverend’s band of insurgents. He railed against the spiritual complacency of the “doughface” Christians who could tolerate slavery and warned of God’s judgment on the nation as a result. He fought in the Civil War and lost an eye in the conflict.

Ames’ father was the complete opposite, a dedicated pacifist who saw the 1918 Spanish Flu plague, in the midst of World War I, as God’s judgment on a mad world. Nevertheless, the father took in the aged grandfather when he had no place to go, giving the young Ames a chance to observe their respective theologies and the dynamics between the men, even though the surest sign of a disagreement between them was their use of the title “Reverend” when addressing one another. Also factoring into this narrative are Ames’ older, apostate, brother; Ames’ lifelong best friend, Old Boughton, who is the pastor of the Presbyterian church in Gilead; and Old Boughton’s prodigal son, John Ames Boughton (Jack), who was named after the narrator and who consumes a great deal of the old man’s thoughts and fears as he lays out what little legacy he has to offer his seven-year-old son.

The plot, such as it is, progresses much as an afternoon float trip does, meandering slowly around bends and through shady places as Ames unwinds the story in such a way that you don’t readily realize how much ground has been covered, while leaving you with a vague unease about what rapids or waterfalls might be ahead. I am continuously charmed by each page and awed at the grasp that the author, a woman, has on the inner-workings of a man’s mind. I could have read the book in an afternoon, but I have purposely drawn out the pleasure by allocating myself only a few pages a day to read and ruminate upon.

Now, if my purpose in this post was to offer a book review, I’d hope that my words so far would inspire you to seek out the book yourself (indeed, I do). But that is not the purpose of this post, despite the paragraphs that have come before. Instead, the book has stirred something in my own inner voice, and in my mind, to record some of the thoughts I’ve had of late, some of which have come along of their own accord and some that have been brought forth by the book, and many that are a bit of both.

One thought on “A balm in Gilead, part 1: life and death

  1. My balm was “The Shack”. When you read it, Dad, I’m sure it’ll be added to your list.

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