In 1956, Reverend John Ames is nearing the end of his life. A third-generation preacher, he strongly desires to pass his legacy of faith onto his young son, Jack. After marrying young and losing his wife and daughter, John never dreamed he'd fall in love again. When he did, it caught him off-guard, yet he embraced the experience. Now he is seventy-six, and Jack is seven. John's dearest wish is to communicate to his son his history and the truths of life he's learned, which he does through an extended letter/journal addressed to Jack.
Through meandering prose, Reverend Ames relates the story of his past, his growing up, and his present struggles. He moves through time as though it were liquid, moving from past to present and back again. One of his main concerns about dying too soon deals with his namesake, his best friend's son John Ames Boughton, who has mysteriously returned home after a many-year absence. There's a great deal of history between the two men, which is revealed slowly over the course of many months. From his home in Gilead, Iowa, the Reverend hopes to tell the story of his life and how his experiences have shaped him into the person he has become.
Gilead is one of the most quietly beautiful books I have ever read. Each sentence and every word is carefully chosen and fits perfectly into its place in the story. Not one word is wasted. Moving in time is never confusing, as the reminiscing is always at the appropriate time to reveal motivations behind what is occurring the present. Reverend John Ames is immediately endearing. His simple nature, coupled with very complex thoughts about God, make for a three-dimensional person who readers will identify with on many levels.
Reverend Ames mulls over queries others bring to him about difficult concepts such as predestination. He prays and takes comfort in the Scriptures and the truths they provide him. He takes the time to discuss how his father and grandfather's differing styles and ideas about their faith have developed his own belief system. His friendships with his pal "Old Boughton" and his relationship with his wife help to give the story even more depth.
Even those without a Christian background will appreciate Gilead's story and its presentation. Marilynne Robinson depicts a deep faith and many questions about Christianity. Gilead is very gently spiritual, never hitting the reader over the head with religion. The meditative feeling will draw you in and, in the case of frenetic readers, will slow you down and allow contemplation. The lyrical and evocative language enthralls and entrances. Take time to savor each phrase and allow Robinson's words to wash over your soul.