Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist

08 September 2006

Gilead
Gilead

Last week I read Marilynne Robinson's Pulitzer Prize winning Gilead on the recommendation of a friend. Gilead is a small town in western Iowa, just over the border from Kansas. (In reality, of course, Iowa does not share a border with Kansas, but this geographical fiction is no less plausible than Gilead itself.) Not a conventional novel with a clear plotline and an obvious ending, it instead takes the form of a journal kept by a dying minister of the gospel written for his 7-year-old son whom he will not live to see grow up.

The Rev. John Ames is the third generation of men by that name to have pastored the local Congregational church. Born two decades before the end of the 19th century, he is married briefly in the first years of the 20th. Alas his first wife dies in childbirth, as does the infant daughter. Only when he is in his 60s does he remarry a woman much younger than he and, as he approaches his three-score-years-and-ten, experience the unexpected grace of fatherhood once again.

The beauty of the book lies not in its plot, but in the portrayal of its characters. Robinson flawlessly assumes the voice of an elderly man, persuading the reader that, among other things, the writer really did accompany his father on a journey to Kansas in 1892 to find his grandfather's grave. The most complex character is his namesake, John Ames "Jack" Boughton, the son of his lifelong friend, "old Boughton." Having disgraced the family in his youth and moved away from Gilead, he has now returned to town 20 years later, with unknown motives. Ames fears Jack's influence on his wife and son after he has passed on. Much of the latter part of the book finds him preoccupied with Jack's sudden and unnerving presence in his family's life and his interior struggle over whether he should warn his wife about him.

Oddly enough, however, Ames' second wife, Lila, along with the other women in the book, is not as vivid a character as one would expect from a husband's diary. It may not be fair to call her one-dimensional, yet we know little of her motives and what makes her tick. That's the one thing that does not ring true in an otherwise compelling narrative. On the other hand, given that it is written for his son, who when he reads it will already have known his own mother, Ames might well deem it unnecessary to delve too deeply into her character for his benefit.

There is much to love in this book.

First, although I have never lived in a small town, I was taken with the setting and the relationships nurtured by it. Imagine living in one place one's whole life and enjoying the proximity of lifelong friendships. In a mobile society friendships are generally cultivated for a time and then have to be maintained in attenuated form over a distance as someone moves away. (I have never entirely reconciled myself to this fact of contemporary life.) But Ames and old Boughton — best friends from childhood — grow old together and seemingly face death at nearly the same moment.

Second, I was moved by the father-son relationships portrayed. With remarkable insight, Robinson accurately depicts the love and loyalty, as well as the tensions and conflict, between the generations of a family. Again this rings true.

Finally, Robinson perceptively explores the unfathomable mystery of divine election in the lives of her characters, especially the wayward Jack and Ames' disbelieving brother Edward. Why does God's grace seem to bypass those who, try as they might, cannot bring themselves to believe? Why do others, such as Lila, come to the faith in so ordinary a fashion after sitting through successive weeks of less-than-riveting sermons? The author asks and considers these questions but wisely refrains from trying to answer them.

Robinson's last (and first) novel, Housekeeping, was written a quarter of a century ago. Let's hope she doesn't wait as long to publish a third.

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