Book #39: Gilead

Ladies and Gentlement, we have a winner...

The story of Gilead is deceptively simple: John Ames, a Congregationalist minister presiding over the town of Gilead in 1950's Iowa, is nearing the end of his life.  He's in his 80's, has a much younger wife and a seven year old son, and he worries that his son will grow up not knowing the man his father was, only knowing the old, gentle Reverend he has become.  So Gilead is the letter Ames writes to his son to ensure that Ames and his history is passed down.

The language is also simple, in its way.  Measured and careful, here careful literally meaning "full of care," it is the exact embodiment of Ames, a paced, virtuous prose for a virtuous man.  There are shades of Steinbeck, of Melville, and it's written in such a precise voice you immediately feel every breath, every step Ames takes as he tells his story to his son:

While you read this, I am imperishable, somehow more alive than I have ever been, in the strength of my youth, with dear ones besides me.  You read the dreams of an anxious, fuddled old man, and I live in a light better than any dream of mine - not waiting for you, though, because I want your dear perishable self self to live long and to love this poor perishable world...
But what Marilynne Robinson has accomplished with Gilead is something far greater than the simple story of a minister wanting his son to remember him.  She's taken the essence of family, of the love a father holds for his child, and distilled it in a work that reading it brings to mind all the images, scents, and sounds of a life lived radiantly and passionately with love.  Only her second novel, written 24 years after her first, Gilead won both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and very rarely have I read something that so instantly canonizes itself in my mind.

Ames' story isn't just his own, it crosses and observes the events that marked the lives of his father, his grandfather, and his best friend and fellow man of God Old Robert Boughton, a man also in failing health, and a man with a shining eye for his son, John "Jack" Ames Boughton, named after Ames during his baptism and newly returned to Gilead for purposes not made clear until the end of the novel.  And as Ames writes to his son about his history, he can't help but also write of his present, and his fears around Jack and his ever-increasing presence within his family's lives.

One of the great surprises Robinson provides is that the circumstance described above doesn't go in the direction you hink it's going to go, although she has a lot of fun making you think it might.  What is does do is focus for Ames the weaknesses he has to overcome, and provide him his last chance to redeem Jack and his own behavior towards him.  When Jack finally explains his situation and intentions to Ames, you realize that as Ames is compelled to write this accounting to his biological son, so must he also reconcile his life and provide the things needed to his spiritual son.

At only 250 pages, it's incredible that Gilead packs as much content as it does.  It just goes to prove that in the hands of a master like Robinson, 250 pages is enough for an entire life.  I can't recommend this book highly enough, and I can't wait to get my hands on her newest novel Home, which seems to tell the same story from the perspective of the Boughton family.  This is an instant classic and without a doubt the book to beat for my Book of the Year for 2008.