Tuesday, September 20, 2016
Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson
A friend handed me Gilead, after an afternoon of sipping chai lattes and chatting about life. I'd seen it around the book community and wanted to read it, so I was excited about the chance. In the midst of a very crazy week of life, the simplicity and depth made it a perfect haven to slip away to.
I love the cover. It makes you think of stained glass, or watercolor--the same muted nostalgia that is the trademark of this book.
John Ames is dying. He's lived through three wars, a Depression, and at least one drought. His life as a preacher has been abnormal and normal all at the same time. He's lived a long time--and now, in his seventies, he wants to leave a record of things to remember for his seven year old son.
At first, he sets out chronicling things about his past, his grandfather, and the charming little town where they live--Gilead. But when Jack Boughton returns to Gilead after years of wandering, John's letters become a very present-day wrestling--though still in that gentle, nostalgic strain--of unresolved threads from his past.
And unwittingly, in his wrestling, he leaves a more authentic picture of his humanity for his son than he ever could have with just a thoughtful chronicle of past memories.
Gilead is one of those books I read as a writer, and I'd love to know more about how the author felt during the writing process. It reads in such a way of random memories and lingering over small details that you almost thing she couldn't have scripted it in advance. But it is so beautiful and simple that you know this book probably took some very hard work and multiple drafting to pull out that simplicity. Clarity is rarely a mark of first drafts. And Gilead is so clear and full of the very essence and feeling of memory, that I want to know what Robinson felt like as she wrote it. Was it hard? Did she pour over some of these passages multiple times, wondering if she would ever say what she wanted? I'm sure she did.
I love the way John Ames sees the sacredness in small things. Perhaps it's his age--he is in his seventies after all. But oftentimes he has a way of gripping the reader's heart by his ponderings over the simplest details. I especially loved his breathless wonder at the beauty of Christian sacraments. Communion was, to him, more than just the Lord's Supper shared in church. He found communion moments in taking biscuit from his father outside a burned down church as a boy. One of the most shining memories in the book is when he gives communion to his seven-year-old son. It struck me so much because it's likely he'll never give it to him again.
I believe in believer's baptism. But while I disagreed with it theologically, I could appreciate the beauty of John Ame's descriptions of baptizing infants as a pastor--laying his hand in blessing on their faces. His ghost of guilt is a vivid one, over the one baby who he felt went unblessed because he had been in turmoil of mind as he performed the ceremony.
And I also loved his Holy of Holies. The silence in the church in the mornings, when he could just sit and think, even though he knew all that memory and holiness of fellowship would be torn down with the old church building after he died.
In between the celebration of worship and sacrament, you get thumbnail sketches of the chequered people that made up his community--the strain between his pacifist father and his warrior grandfather--his brother Edward who walked away from the faith--his keen, lifelong friendship with Jack Boughton--his love for the beautiful woman who married him so late in life and gave him his precious son. And Jack Boughton--the outcast wondering if there is any way back to grace.
Without spoilers, I can say the ending was poignant and almost brought me to tears. It has a deep strain of honesty as Jack's coming makes John Ames face old regrets...memories...and even a form of guilt as he feels his own lack. The tension of relationship crackles on the page as we see into the depths of his soul.
It's a rare gift to see inside a soul like that. Reading Gilead is a rare opportunity. I highly recommend the experience.