I make the mistake sometimes of thinking that a novel of fewer than 300 pages will be a quick read. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson proves the lie. It is a very dense 280 page novel written as a letter by a 75-year-old midwestern preacher to his 7-year-old son circa 1955. It’s heavy on religion and theology, and it’s sometimes repetitive, which is perhaps not too surprising with a septuagenarian narrator. Robinson makes her preacher John Ames a kindly, gentle, flawed, but likable fellow whose family history spans the Civil War, the influenza epidemic, the Depression, and the two world wars. But those earth-shaking events seem to make less of an impression on him and his flock than the vagaries of their common, every day lives and relationships in the small prairie town of Gilead.
John Ames is writing this letter to his little boy in preparation for his own death. It’s sort of an explanation of his life and an apology for not leaving more for the boy and his young mother. It’s also John Ames’ attempt to come to terms with his impending death and making sure that his spiritual house is in order. In the course of the rambling letter, he discusses his grandfather, a preacher and abolitionist who helped settle Kansas and fought in the Civil War; his father, a preacher who embraced pacifism; his brother, who rejected religion for rationalism; his friend preacher Boughton, who is also old and dying; and Boughton’s wayward son, John Ames Boughton, godson of John Ames. John Ames struggles with anger (as his father and grandfather before him) and his distrust of his godson, recently returned to Gilead for reasons no one seems to understand.
Naturally, as this is a rambling letter, we do not get a linear story line, and there are certain mysteries about John Ames’ father, grandfather and godson that take some time to clear up. While the novel can sometimes be ponderous and drag, there is at its heart a pure and forgiving love that better exemplifies John Ames’ Christian theology than any of the texts he is fond of quoting. Gilead won a Pulitzer Prize in 2005, and while I liked the story, I can’t say I loved it. I found it okay, but it’s probably outstanding to those who enjoy theology and have a lot more time to reflect on it than I do.