I have had this book on my TBR shelf for a couple of years now. I started reading it once before, but apparently I was not in the right mood (it is not a fast-paced, action pact thriller). I put it away after the first 25 pages. Two events spurred me to try to re-read this 2005 Pulitzer Prize winning book: Savidge Reads posted an excellent review in which he confessed that it took him about 80 pages to really connect with the book (thereby validating my initial reaction that this is indeed a slow book, and yet making me aware that I did not persevere enough) AND I must read the author’s newest novel, Home, for a writing course that I am taking this summer. Since Home is somewhat of a companion novel to this one, I thought I would read them together for a comprehensive view of the author’s writing style.
Here is a revised summary of Gilead from GoodReads.com:
The narrator, John Ames, is 76, a preacher who has lived almost all of his life in Gilead, Iowa. He is writing a letter to his almost seven-year-old son, the blessing of his second marriage. It is a summing-up, an apologia, a consideration of his life. Robinson takes the story away from being simply the reminiscences of one man and moves it into the realm of a meditation on fathers and children, particularly sons, on faith, and on the imperfectability of man.
The reason for the letter is Ames’s failing health. He wants to leave an account of himself for this son who will never really know him. His greatest regret is that he hasn’t much to leave them, in worldly terms. “Your mother told you I’m writing your begats, and you seemed very pleased with the idea. Well, then. What should I record for you?” In the course of the narrative, John Ames records himself, inside and out, in a meditative style. Robinson’s prose asks the reader to slow down to the pace of an old man in Gilead, Iowa, in 1956. Ames writes of his father and grandfather, estranged over his grandfather’s departure for Kansas to march for abolition and his father’s lifelong pacifism. The tension between them, their love for each other and their inability to bridge the chasm of their beliefs is a constant source of rumination for John Ames. Fathers and sons.
The other constant in the book is Ames’s friendship since childhood with “old Boughton,” a Presbyterian minister. Boughton, father of many children, favors his son, named John Ames Boughton, above all others. Ames must constantly monitor his tendency to be envious of Boughton’s bounteous family; his first wife died in childbirth and the baby died almost immediately after her. Jack Boughton is a ne’er-do-well, Ames knows it and strives to love him as he knows he should. Jack arrives in Gilead after a long absence, full of charm and mischief, causing Ames to wonder what influence he might have on Ames’s young wife and son when Ames dies.
These are the things that Ames tells his son about: his ancestors, the nature of love and friendship, the part that faith and prayer play in every life and an awareness of one’s own culpability. There is also reconciliation without resignation, self-awareness without deprecation, abundant good humor, philosophical queries–Jack asks, “‘Do you ever wonder why American Christianity seems to wait for the real thinking to be done elsewhere?'”–and an ongoing sense of childlike wonder at the beauty and variety of God’s world.
In Marilynne Robinson’s hands, there is a balm in Gilead, as the old spiritual tells us.
I cannot improve on that concise, comprehensive summary, so I will instead just share my initial thoughts. First of all, Savidge Reads is correct — it took me 69 pages, to be exact, before I finally connected with the book. But then something happened on page 70: it was as though a light bulb went off and I understood the message of the book for me: it is important to document our lives in order to leave a legacy for our children as to what we value – what we deem important – what is worth cherishing AND in doing so we can come to terms with our own life and find peace, contentment.
This may not be the message that the author had for the book at all – but it is the message that rang loud and clear to me. The father wishes to leave an account of his life in order that his young son may come to know him after he has passed on. The book is written as though it is a personal diary: no chapters, just breaks between entries. The writing is quite personal and at times felt somewhat like a stream of consciousness. Very often he vacillates between his past (detailing events of his childhood) and the present (describing his own son playing outside). While this is somewhat cumbersome at times – especially in the beginning – it soon becomes a comfortable style that leads the reader through the narrative at a tranquil pace. As I read in another review — the writing style reflects the slow, methodical pace of a 70+ year old man. In this fast paced, plot driven world in which we live, it is a refreshing – although unfamiliar – change.
I truly had a sense of the circle of life while reading this story, and how all of life is interconnected in some way. While the story is about family in general, it truly centers around the father/son relationship. We see the relationship between the author’s father and grandfather; between the author and his father; between the author and his son; and the neighbor’s relationship with his youngest son (what is characteristically the Prodigal Son story). Again, the inevitable conflicts that occur within families – and that easily tear a family apart – are shown as opportunities for self-discovery, acceptance, and forgiveness.
I think what struck me most is the effect that time has on the perspective of life. What seems to be a major problem at the present, is viewed as nothing more than a slight annoyance after the passing of several years. The wisdom of age – provided we are willing to learn from our past experiences – is priceless and worth passing on to the next generation, if we are willing to take the time to sit down, reflect, and write. While I would not describe the author’s life as adventurous (and therefore easy to dismiss as a life worth writing about), he is able to impart valuable life lessons to his son through these personal anecdotes. I also view my life as “boring” – yet I probably have life lessons that are worth passing along to my children in autobiographical sketches that will give them insight to their mother.
I was also profoundly impacted by this writing style. I would normally view this kind of “free writing” as rough draft material — a way to flesh out ideas for a final writing project. I would not consider this form of writing to be an end-product itself. Yet in this narrative it works, and it has opened my eyes to the value of writing – for writing’s sake. Please do not misunderstand my comment, however. I do NOT think Ms. Robinson has turned out a rough draft. Her prose is beautiful and the word pictures she creates are priceless. Her writing style mimics the narrator’s life with such skill that the reader is transported into the old man’s journal: we feel his pain, joy, anguish, and commitment first hand — not as an objective outsider. I am just in awe that the free flow of ideas can ultimately create a cohesive whole. Again, this has inspired me to do the same: not with the hope of imitating Ms. Robinson’s success, but with the idea of reflecting on the lessons I have learned in my own life.
One final observation about this book. John Ames, the narrator, is a pastor – and he comes from a long line of pastors. His good friend and neighbor, Boughton, is also a pastor. There is a lot of theological knowledge within the pages of this book, and my fear was that it would read more like a preachy sermon rather than literary fiction. Yes, there is quite a bit of Biblical references and the basic Christian themes of love, forgiveness, and reconciliation are permeated throughout the story. BUT….the narrative itself is not preachy; it is, in fact, beautiful. These may be Christian themes – but I also think they are applicable to the human condition as a whole. I try to read a wide variety of literature – but I always read the selections through the lens of my Christian worldview – irregardless of the author’s values or belief system. Therefore, I think that anyone could pick up this magnificent story of the celebration of life and read it with their own particular world view lens and enjoy it immensely.
When I first started the book I could not fathom why it won the Pulitzer Prize. After completing the book, and reflecting on its content, I can understand why it was awarded this prestigious prize. The book definitely fits the criteria for being a work of “….distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life” and I would give it a 4.5 out of 5 rating.