A reader who values complex family and human relationships, appreciates Scripture, responds to the slow unveiling of character and action, and values the insights of a man facing his death—that reader will relish Gilead.
The opening words draw readers into the novel’s world: “I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren’t very old, as if that settled it.”
The “I” is narrator John Ames, pastor in Gilead, Iowa. The “you” is his seven-year-old son. During the course of the novel, John Ames prepares for his death and celebrates his 77th birthday. He is suffering from a failing heart, from what the doctor terms “angina pectoris,” a term that Ames says “has a theological sound, like misericordia.” Ames prepares for death by writing a letter, which becomes a 247-page journal, to his young son. The story begins in the spring with Ames watching his wife in her blue dress and his son in a red shirt, blowing bubbles at Sophy, the cat. The story ends, later in the same year, with candles on the table at supper time because “dark is coming early now” and with Ames observing that his wife still wears her blue dress but his son has outgrown the red shirt.
As Ames writes, he recalls events and people. His narration, weaving back and forth in time, allows suspense to build as different strands of his story emerge. Born in 1880 in Kansas, Ames has lived 74 of his 76 years in Gilead, Iowa. He is the third John Ames, a third generation pastor. One strand of the story involves his family: his irascible grandfather, who served as chaplain in the Civil War; his unyielding father who advocated for peace and refused to sit in his father’s congregation; and his older brother, who left to study in Germany and returned an atheist. In one memorable scene, the narrator tells of the journey he and his father made to Kansas, in a time of drought and hardship, in order to find and tend his grandfather’s grave. Ames also recalls the great loss of his first wife and newborn daughter, and the joy of meeting a young woman and marrying again, many years later.
Another strand centers on Ames’s long friendship with his neighbor Boughton and on Ames’ relationship with Boughton’s son Jack. It is a story grounded in the biblical image of the prodigal son. Jack, baptized by Ames and named for him, has returned to Gilead after a twenty-year absence. Ames doesn’t trust Jack, and the reader wonders why. Suspense builds. In a powerful scene near the end of the novel, Ames blesses Jack, grateful to have found some good in this troubled man.
Ames is sustained by Scripture; biblical references and allusions abound in his narration. As he thinks of his young son, whom he is leaving, and of Boughton’s son, Ames finds comfort in the story of Hagar and Ishmael. He says, “That is how life goes—we send our children into the wilderness. Some of them on the day they are born, it seems, for all the help we can give them. Some of them seem to be a kind of wilderness unto themselves. But there must be angels there, too, and springs of water. Even that wilderness, the very habitation of jackals, is the Lord’s. I need to bear this in mind.”
Another strand of the novel involves ministry. Ames has a wisdom gained from long experience, careful observation, and a lifelong study of the Bible. He filled many lonely years with reading. He has worked hard to write and preach meaningful, honest sermons. In fact, one of the few possessions he has to leave his son is boxes of sermons.
Gilead is the story of a man, secure in faith, facing his own death. For him, death is “like going home.” He thinks about the New Testament passage “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye,” and creates a wonderful image: “I imagine a kind of ecstatic pirouette, a little bit like going up for a line drive when you’re so young that your body almost doesn’t know about effort. Paul couldn’t have meant something entirely different from that. So there’s that to look forward to.”
In this long letter, Ames says his purpose is “to tell you [his son] things I would have told you if you had grown up with me, things I believe it becomes me as a father to teach you.” The reader, however, senses that an underlying purpose for Ames is to gain perspective on his life. John Ames emerges as a grateful, joyful, and ultimately serene man. Although one might say that nothing dramatic happens, the novel deals with life and death, loss and joy, war, racism, and struggles in human relationships—issues that occur in all times and places.
Gilead is a rich and satisfying book.
JAN ROSS has taught at Queens College and Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, N.C.; Carteret Community College in Morehead City, N. C.; and Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla. She currently lives in Raleigh, N.C.