Twenty-four years after her first novel, Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson returns with an intimate tale of three generations from the Civil War to the twentieth century: a story about fathers and sons and the spiritual battles that still rage at America's heart. Writing in the tradition of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, Marilynne Robinson's beautiful, spare, and spiritual prose allows "even the faithless reader to feel the possibility of transcendent order" (Slate). In the luminous and unforgettable voice of Congregationalist minister John Ames, Gilead reveals the human condition and the often unbearable beauty of an ordinary life.
In the town of Gilead, Iowa, 76 year old Congregationalist minister John Ames senses he is nearing death and is trying to prepare his family for his imminent passing. Author Marilynne Robinson lays out the entire novel in the form of one long letter Ames is writing to his nearly 7 year old son (obviously a son he fathered late in life). This letter is largely full of Ames' musings on his long life, seasoned with long stories, meaningful anecdotes, lessons learned, etc..."As I write I am aware that my memory has made much of very little."
He also tries to impart final lessons to his son on the value in being financially humble yet rich in familial bonds, and the hardships & merits that come from living a life of service.
"I can't believe we will forget our sorrows altogether. That would mean forgetting that we have lived, humanly speaking. Sorrow seems to me to be a great part of the substance of human life. For example, at this very moment I feel a kind of loving grief for you as you read this, because I do not know you, and because you have grown up fatherless, you poor child, lying on your belly now in the sun with Soapy asleep on the small of your back. You are drawing those terrible pictures that you will bring me to admire, and which I will admire because I have not the heart to say one word that you might remember against me....I'll pray that you grow up a brave man in a brave country. I will pray you find a way to be useful."
I was moved at Ames' protective thoughts regarding one Jack Boughton, a man Ames fears may pose a threat to his family after Ames' death. Minster or no, you gotta respect that father gene kicking in:
"How should I deal with these fears I have, that Jack Boughton will do you and your mother harm, just because he can, just for the sly, unanswerable meanness of it? You have already asked after him twice this morning. Harm to you is not harm to me in the strict sense, and that is a great part of the problem. He could knock me down the stairs and I would have worked out the theology for forgiving him before I reached the bottom. But if he harmed you in the slightest way, I'm afraid theology would fail me."
It may come as no surprise to some but I'll go ahead and let the general reader know that this one turns pretty heavily religious. Our main character is a minister so it naturally comes with the territory, but even with that in mind it still felt like overkill at times. Long, looong bits on preaching, a lot of actual Scripture woven into the novel's text. Also, Ames swings his thoughts back to the topic of his grandfather SO MUCH, to the point of distraction for me.
With the narrator coming from a long line of preachers, there's a healthy amount of biblical overtones & parallels. Some of the sermons were totally lost on me, but I did enjoy the theme of creating a life of love and strong family bonds. Ames' description of his relationship with his second wife (the mother of the son he is writing to) has its memorably heartwarming bits. Together a relatively brief time, only 10 years married by the start of the novel (he 67, she in her mid-30s at their wedding) , Ames shares with his son that he takes comfort in leaving the world knowing he was able to provide his wife the stable life she craved, though he hints that she "settled". The way the proposal went down was pretty cute, the deadpan way she just says "You should marry me", his equally straight-faced "You're right, I think I shall", her "Well then, I'll see you tomorrow." and Ames admitting to his son that it was the most exciting thing that had ever happened in his life LOL
If you're the kind of reader who heavily relies on plot, you'll likely be disappointed with this one. In that respect, this novel is pretty dull. Its strength mainly lies in the thought-provoking subjects Ames presents in his letter. For that, it may make for a good book club pick. Mostly my take away was the warmth and love Ames tries to imprint upon his son and wife through his final words.