Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

By Marilynne Robinson
Completed September 21, 2007

Gilead is a lyrical ode to fathers and sons. Written as a long letter to his seven-year-old son, the story centers on a dying preacher, John Ames, and his views on religion, small-town life, his ancestors and forgiveness. You could almost feel the urgency in his pen as he writes passages about his life - a way to leave behind something for his young son who would never get to know his father.

Reverend Ames recounts nostalgic stories about the town of Gilead, which formed to assist runaway slaves and later became a hideaway for abolitionist John Brown. He shifts into stories about his grandfather, father and brother - who all shared different religious views. He also recollects childhood stories about his friend Boughton, who was also a preacher in Gilead.

Then, the story explores father-son relationships further by introducing one of Boughton's sons, and Reverend Ames's namesake, John Ames Boughton. Jack, as he was called, had a lifetime of trouble in his back pocket, and he was a constant source of worry for Reverend Ames and his friend. There was a certain event in Jack's past that was particularly bothersome for Reverend Ames, and he could never forgive him. As the reverend reaches his last days, Jack returns to town ,and Reverend Ames begins to worry about the influence his namesake will have on his young son.

Gilead has many touching moments, but I found the story to be burdened by the religious discourses that Reverend Ames follows. I am not a student of religious philosophy, so the philosophers mentioned only confused me. However, in a style I favor for my sermons, Gilead is short, poignant and allegorical, reminding us that to love and forgive are what life is all about.

(cross-posted on my blog)