Gilead is a completely strange and lovely book. It’s the sort of novel that shouldn’t work, on so many levels, and yet it does. Brilliantly. Which just goes to show that a truly gifted author can break every rule and create something utterly compelling.
It’s a slow story. There’s no strong plotline to pull you along, only the gentle, rambling voice of a sick old man, writing down a memoir of his life for the young son he won’t see grow to manhood. The old man is John Ames, a Congregationalist minister in a small Iowa town in the 1950s. He is the namesake of a much better-known preacher, his fiery and sometimes violent abolitionist grandfather. As Ames’ life story unfolds in a stream-of-consciousness, not-always-chronological series of stories, we discover that the legacy of the first John Ames has been both a blessing and a burden to the narrator as well as to his own father.
This is very much a story about fathers and sons, about legacy and heritage. John Ames’ recounting of his own life story and that of his father and grandfather — spanning the US Civil War, drought, the First World War, the Spanish Influenza, Depression and eventually the Second World War — is interspersed with scenes from his present life with the much younger wife he married late in life and the small son she has given him. Also threaded into this tale are Ames’ oldest and best friend, Boughton, and his son, John Ames’s namesake, who has been a source of trouble all his life and has now reappeared to disturb the dying days of both his father and his father’s old friend.
And that’s really all there is for plot here. This is a character-driven story held together by one thing — the quiet, compelling voice of the narrator, a man who, unlike his grandfather, has never seen a vision of God, but has seen God every day of his life through the world and the people around him and the deep love and joy he finds in those people and that world.
Anyone who thinks that you have to shy away from the subject of religion in literary fiction needs to read Gilead. In the course of reflecting on his life and his present situation, Ames explores some very deep avenues of theology and spirituality. The book is unabashedly Christian yet soars so far above what’s normally packaged as “Christian fiction” that it makes me want to cry. Why can’t the most brilliant and lovely language be used to develop the most important of all themes? In this book, that’s exactly what happens.
Gilead is a slow, gentle, thoughtful book with a powerful message — that the presence of God is found just as much in the beauty of an ordinary day and the touch of another human hand as in any blazing road-to-Damascus vision. If you pick this book up and find it a slow start, press on — it will reward you. I read it twice through before returning it to the library and plan to buy my own copy so I can read it again.