Sunday, May 27, 2012

Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, a Refreshing Read

Sometimes I take awhile to get around to reading a book, then I like it so much, I wonder what kept me.  I had read Housekeeping by Robinson (after it, too, sat for a long while on my bookshelf).  I don't know that I loved that novel though.  As I started reading Gilead though, I was already thinking of who else should read this book.

The novel is the letters (or one long letter) of 77-year-old minister John Ames, approaching death, to his young son, his attempt to explain himself, his life to this child he had for years never expected.  Ames had married his high school sweetheart but lost her and their only child in childbirth, and had gone on preaching, never expecting to marry, much less to have children.  His wife, a much younger woman who appeared at his church as he preached, brought new life to his later years.

The book probably first drew me in since my own father is a preacher who, like Ames, keeps his handwritten sermons from years back.  One of Ames' concerns is what will become of these sermons--will they be kept, destroyed, overlooked?  This brought to mind Rev. Abner Peet, in Edgar Lee Master's Spoon River Anthology, speaking from the grave in dismay at the result of his life's work.

Throughout the novel, Ames remains committed to his calling. A third generation preacher from an colorful line, he believes he would have been called to the work of the Lord even if his father had been a tradesman.  In the book, Robinson doesn't mock or trivialize religion or, especially, faith. His closest friend, Boughton, is the Presbyterian minister, and the two seem to make little of their theological differences. 

Throughout the book, the pastor manages to balance his genuine faith with his human uncertainty.  He recognizes shifts in his depth of belief and even looks back at his earlier naivete, reflected in some of his earlier teaching. The antagonist, if he can be called such, is Boughton's son, Ames' namesake, John Ames Boughton--Jack--returned to his father's house after a long absence.  Ames feels an urgency to warn his son--and by extension his wife--about the young man he doesn't deem trustworthy.  Because the story is told as an ongoing letter, though, the reader's acquaintance with Jack develops along with that of Ames, the narrator.

In my experience, novels rarely depict a minister (or even a devoted Christian) in such a believable, sympathetic, complex way.  He self-awareness is particularly touching. Robinson avoids all cliches and stereotypes, allowing her protagonist to exist as a father, husband, and friend--as well as a man of God.

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