Sunday, December 03, 2006

48. Gilead

by Marilynne Robinson

Gilead is a very simple story. John Ames is a preacher at the end of his life. His son is seven and his wife is several decades younger than his seventy-some years and, knowing that the natural progression of things won’t allow for him to see them into their later years, the novel is a letter to the young boy, chronicling all of Ames’s life. I didn’t know much about the story when I picked it up – just that it won a Pulitzer and that many of the chickliterati were gleeful over the return of Marilynne Robinson (it’s been about ten years since her first novel). Sometimes I wonder why some books are chosen for these prestigious awards; sometimes they’re boring and tedious or impossible to follow or just plain weird. In this case, as I said earlier, the story is so simple and unadorned - there isn’t even really a plot to speak of – but Robinson creates this character filled with questions and a lust for truth, a character whose fascination with life is countered only by the physical weariness his age brings, that you can’t help but feel him in your own heart. Perhaps that’s why some of these awards are bestowed and, as far as I’m concerned, that’s as good a reason as any.

I’m Catholic, so the idea of clerics marrying and having children is somewhat foreign to me. I have to be honest and I say that I was glad to read that the reason for Ames having such a young son was that his first wife and child died very early on. It made the idea of a man in his late sixties marrying a woman in her thirties and having a child with her much easier to understand. Well, “stomach” is the word I first typed because the idea of an older man going after a younger woman disturbs me, especially since I’m at the age where older men seem to think they can legitimately make passes at me and I just think, “You could be my father. Ew.” But that’s not the issue in this story. Ames makes it clear in his epistle that he’s felt alone since the death of the childhood friend who became his wife and although he’s felt some peace and serenity in that solitude he’s always wanted a family. His regret that he will not get to see his new wife and son grow old is prominent throughout the writing.

There’s another layer to the story, though. Ames comes from a religious lineage. His father was a preacher and his father before him was a preacher and a lot of his writings are recollections of the things his father and grandfather have done, both of them colorful characters in their own right. His best friend is also a preacher with a family of his own and it’s with this man’s son that Ames maintains a complicated relationship. Named after the Reverend, John Ames Boughton is the son whose life decisions break Ames’s heart. There’s some mystery at what actually went on, but when the truth comes out we learn that years ago Boughton had a child with a young, poor girl whom he essentially abandoned. His father and sister visited the child and even offered to take care of her full time, but the mother’s family wouldn’t allow her to be taken. The baby soon died from an infection she received from a cut on her foot, but Boughton is not much affected. The one thing Ames wants – children and a family – is the one thing Boughton turned his back on without a second thought.

At the point that Ames is writing this, Boughton has returned to Gilead, Iowa after many years of absence. His own father is dying and calling for him and he stirs up all sorts of emotions in Ames, especially after revealing his current place in life. I don’t think Gilead is a story that will appeal to everyone. It’s very introspective and emotional (though rarely sappy) and it’s easy to question Ames’s passivity. He asserts that he merely shares the profession of his forebears and would have always been called to the vocation; he prays for Boughton without ever fully engaging his anger and jealousy; he’s never left his Midwestern hometown. But there is beauty in always having known what you were meant to do and where you are meant to be. There is honor in providing objective guidance, especially when it’s not wanted. And there is something to be said for the unquenchable love for a son. Gilead is not a story for everyone because it’s not a story about everyone. It’s the story of one man and it’s told very well.

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