In my efforts to read more classics/prizewinners in the last year, there have been some real clinkers, so I wasn't sure about this one. I'm an agnostic col-lapsed Catholic with a half-Jewish family who took a tour through every single major religion before I realized I have a tough time with organized religions. I did like the basically agnostic Universal Unitarians, but I have never liked getting dressed on Sunday mornings, so I wasn't entirely sure I'd like a book about a dying minister writing a letter to his young son.
Turns out a book full of religious stuff was, in a word, awesome. When I just clicked five stars, I realized I need to go back and redo all of my other stars. (In truth, I've read a handful of books that actually should count for five, but I seem to be way too generous with the 3-4 range, which makes 5 less special. Someday soon, I need to go over my ratings, create a system & fix them before I have too many books to do so here.) Anyway, this is one of those books that just killed me. It was about as bad as a talking pet that dies book in terms of how wrecked I was when I finished it. If the next book to start hadn't been also part of the trilogy, I'd not have started the next book. I would be crying in the dark with crumpled tissues all round. Instead I am crying in the light with the tissues mostly in the wastebasket.
Reverend John Ames, a third-generation Congregationalist minister living in the tiny fictional town of Gilead, Iowa is dying, and the whole book is his letter to his very young son who will not grow up knowing his father. Despite being about an old preacher who married a young woman in a small town in Ohio, emotionally this book hit me in a very personal way. I'm a non-believing biracial woman from the urban east coast. How does this book feel so much like it was written for me? As therapists love to say, it's the emotions that matter. The neighbor's son, Jack, also felt very familiar to me.
Robinson quietly hits on huge soaring themes with a gentle touch that never ever turns maudlin or flowery. In telling the story of his three generations of ministers in Iowa, there are some very funny stories and some very sad, deeply painful moments all combined with sweetness that is never sugary. (As children they baptise kittens and worry about the fact that the cats keep jumping around. Pagan cats, it turns out, are as good as Christian ones.)
It feels almost sacrilegious to just cite the hilarious stories but I must tell you about the abolitionists who get a bit too tunnel-happy, causing a stranger's horse to sink through the road. These highly religious people get the horse drunk (problematic for the teetotalling stranger), tell preposterous lies to get rid of the stranger, then they have to get the horse out of the hole in the middle of town. All of this happens with an escaped slave desperately trying not "escape" from their help too "I think I'm better off doing this on my own." The whole town ends up moving a few miles away to get away from their tunnel. That story made me cry tears from laughing.
But what's so affecting is the warmth and decency and reasonable attitude from the highly religious Congregationalist minister John Ames, whether it's regarding his young wife and son, his years of being alone after losing his first wife and daughter, or dealing with Jack Boughton - his namesake, godson and the bane of his existence. This book is a healing book, full of reserve hiding reservoirs overflowing with humanity and most of all, loving kindness.
I'm pretty sure I will still feel this is an excellent book at the end of the year and next year, but if I had to defend it, I'd be at a loss. It got me in such a way that I seriously considered writing a thank you letter to Marilynne Robinson. It just is one of the most affecting books I've read lately. I'm still sort of surprised I love this book so much. It's a deceptively simple book. But man, it really packed a punch.
"these people who can see right through you never quite do you justice, because they never give you credit for the effort you're making to be better than you actually are, which is difficult and well meant and deserving of some little notice."
So despite my initial qualms about religion, it was in no way patronizing, irritating, hypocritical or any number of other things I've run into with books based on religious characters. Ames is one of the most Christlike fictional characters I've run across: a very decent man doing a very decent thing in a town full of decent, multifaceted and religious people.