I read this book in 2007 and wrote only two sentences in my blog about it at the time. I have now gone back to it, partly because once I read Lila, I realized how little I retained.
The scope of the story is ambitious: John Ames is 76 in the mid 1950s. He brings to life his grandfather, a firebrand who was a founder of their aboliitionist town in Iowa. In the mid-1850s Iowans supported the anti-slavery position in Bleeding Kansas. The grandfather fought in the Civil War and lost an eye. By the time John’s father was the preacher in Gilead, the grandfather was pretty much just a firebrand who thought he should steal from anyone to give to the needy. John’s father was a pacifist, in contrast to his father.
John who spent his life as a preacher in Gilead and is near the end of his life, is writing to his 7-year-old son. He speaks of his lonely life (he lost his first wife and their baby in childbirth), as well as nostalgic memories of his youth. His older brother Edward was a trial for the father because of his turn toward the intellectual, non-religious life. He introduced Feuerbach to John without the desired effect. John remained loyal to his religion and the limited life of his little town.
The troubled son of John’s best friend Boughton ( a Presbyterian minister), showed up as Boughton is near death. The son, named John Ames Boughton is described as causing great misery for everyone, though always forgiven. Our John Ames berates himself endlessly at his lack of godliness toward the man (oh brother). He tells us in detail why his namesake is so unworthy, including having impregnated a very young girl of a poor family. Then his view changes when the namesake reveals that he has loved a black woman and has a beloved child with her. The namesake is now much more worthy of love and kindness though it was agreed he could not tell his father about having done such a troubling thing. Never mind that the father knew about the young girl’s baby and had visited that baby as long as she lived.
Which brings me to the reason that I have so little patience for the nostalgic look the elderly man recounts. I don’t want to hear about the joy he and his childhood friend Boughton had with no apparent recognition of their privilege. I am in no mood for the 1950s and talk of the "colored people," however kindly that talk is. The crazy firebrand grandfather has much more appeal at the moment.
His mix of folksy talk of his beloved young wife, the joy the son brings him, the appreciation of the beauty of the world in the moments he has left are juxtaposed with philosophical questions relating to religion. Robinson uses the characters of Edward, the son who was an honorable man with no religion and John Ames Boughton, the man who could be counted on to do the wrong thing and then twist the knife to explore difficult questions.
Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004, 247 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available from the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.