My friend Jill recently completed an art project where she took a six-foot-tall branch, curved like an “S”, and hung from it at intervals paintings of people who had been important in her life. The hangers are separated by clear plastic spacers, making the stick look even more like a spinal column. She plans to be videotaped walking with this staff down the streets of her hometown, signifying the way we carry our past with us wherever we go, while also being supported by that past.
Gilead is a book weighted by the past. The year is 1956, and John Ames is a 76-year-old preacher in the small, midwestern town of Gilead. Nearing the end of his life and concerned at not being around to support his young wife and raise his seven-year-old son, he writes a series of letters to the boy. These letters are what make up the book. Since he assumes that the boy will not read them until he is grown, Ames includes descriptions of the boy's daily activities and of the townspeople, such as Boughton, Ames’s best friend, and Boughton’s son Jack, who is Ames’s godson and a bit of a ne’er-do-well.
In attempting to pass on life lessons to the boy, Ames talks about his own father and grandfather, both preachers, both also named John Ames, but with very different views. Ames’s grandfather preached his flock into the Civil War, conducting services with a gun in his hand, declaring that there could be no peace while people were enslaved. Ames’s father was vehemently opposed to all war and many of the anecdotes have to do with the testy relationship between the two. The relationship between fathers (of all kinds) and sons is the backbone of this book.
As befitting a preacher, the events Ames recounts are given a religious framework. A scene where his father breaks a biscuit and gives him half is considered communion. His father taking him to Kansas to find his grandfather’s grave in the middle of a great drought is compared to Abraham leading Isaac up the hill.
All the preaching left me cold, making the book seem like one long rambling sermon. I have to confess I was pretty bored the first time through. I found myself waiting, waiting, waiting for something to happen. There were some promising signs—a few asides that hinted at the possibility that some of the relationships might be more tangled than they appeared—but they came to nothing. Still I was left with the sense that I had not heard the whole story, a not-uncommon problem with first-person narratives, as I’ve mentioned before. We never hear from the other characters, only occasionally a scrap of dialogue quoted by the narrator.
A story should have dramatic ups and downs, we’re told. Here, however, the hills and valleys are as flat as a Midwestern cornfield, forcing the reader to be even more aware of each gentle slope. I liked the book better the second time through. I knew what to expect and could slide over the Bible stories. I found I liked the narrator, especially his appreciation of the small things of this life: going into his old church in the pre-dawn silence, watching his son blow soap bubbles. He’s trying to make sense of his life, circling back to certain incidents over and over. I found this part very true, being haunted by certain incidents, not necessarily the ones we think at the time will be important. Ames says, “. . . you never do know the actual nature, even of your own experience, or perhaps it has no fixed and certain nature.”
Robinson’s first book, Housekeeping, is one of the best books I’ve ever read, so I wasn’t surprised that the language here is lovely. In describing the way his son looked at him when the boy thought he was laughing at him, Ames says “It’s a kind of furious pride, very passionate and stern. I’m always a little surprised to find my eyebrows unsinged after I’ve suffered one of those looks.” Like the old church which carries its history in every broken step and ancient bullet hole, the language shimmers with Biblical references, yet it is plain and powerful in its simplicity. Ames’s life too has been a simple life, but one filled with grace. A good man, at least by his own account, Ames wants to hand on to his son what his father gave to him. As he says, “There are many ways to lead a good life.”