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Thursday, June 17, 2010


   MOST OF WHAT WE REMEMBER of our fathers, either good or bad, is based on our experience with them—those decades spent in proximity. For John Ames, giving his son that chance will not be possible. In 1956, at the age of 77, this pastor of a small church in Gilead, Iowa finds himself facing two incongruous truths: failing health due to heart disease, and a seven-year-old son from a late marriage. So, he decides to set down his story as best he can in a long letter. A novel, Gilead, is that letter, and it is wondrous.
   He tenderly tells of the young woman who came into his church one Sunday and immediately stole his heart (Not easily, mind you. His devotion to his calling was always first, especially since the death of his first wife years ago during childbirth). He refused to say anything to her, though, because of the disparity of their ages, until one day…
“I came near alarming myself with the thought of the loneliness stretching ahead of me, and the new bitterness of it, and how I hated the secretiveness and the renunciation that honor and decency required of me and that common sense enforced on me. But when I looked up, your mother was watching me, smiling a little, and she touched my hand and she said, ‘You’ll be just fine.’ . . .
“She began to come to the house when some of the other women did, to take the curtains away to wash, to defrost the icebox. And then she started coming by herself to tend the gardens. She made them very fine and prosperous. And one evening when I saw her there, out by the wonderful roses, I said, ‘How can I repay you for all this?’
“And she said, ‘You ought to marry me.’
And I did.”
   The marriage is happy for both. Yet as Ames’s health issues loom, another complication arises as the son of his best friend, who once left town in disgrace, returns to Gilead and re-inserts himself into the life of the pastor and his wife. As he watches this man in his 40s bond with his wife—herself near that age—and son, he wonders if he should tell her of what has gone before. And he wonders if it even matters.
   As older men are wont to do, Ames loves remembering the past, and tells thorough histories of his grandfather, a hellfire and damnation preacher who went to Kansas as an abolitionist and fought for the Union Army in the Civil War. His father, naturally, became a pacifist preacher who nevertheless held enough rage to nearly destroy his family. All of this becomes the lineage of a young boy who, Ames hopes, will one day read his letter.
   The book is so luminous and so alive that you simply feel you are reading the actual remembrances of a man such as John Ames, which is a testament to the talent of the writer, Marilynne Robinson. The Washington Post hails Gilead as “so serenely beautiful, and written in a prose so gravely measured and thoughtful, that one feels touched with grace just to read it.” The spiritual musings and perceptions are among the most profound I’ve read in fine literature. Through John Ames, author Robinson shows she understands both goodness and grace. In thinking about his young friend as the prodigal son, Ames describes himself thusly: “I myself was the good son, so to speak, the one who never left his father’s house. . . . I am one of those righteous for whom the rejoicing in heaven will be comparatively restrained.’’
   It is rare these days to find a good book about a good man. This is one.
Book Review by Wayne Steadham.

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