“I meant to leave you a reasonably candid testament to my better self, and it seems to me now that what you must see here is just an old man struggling with the difficulty of understanding what it is he’s struggling with.” – Thoughts on Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
“There have been heroes here, and saints and martyrs, and I want you to know that. Because that is the truth, even if no one remembers it. To look at the place, it’s just a cluster of houses strung along a few roads, and a little row of brick buildings with stores in them, and a grain elevator and a water tower with Gilead written on its side, and the post office and the schools and the playing fields and the old train station, which is pretty well gone to weeds now. But what must Galilee have looked like? You can’t tell so much from the appearance of a place.”
Ah, Gilead. It’s been a month now since I finished reading you, and I must admit I still feel insufficient in writing about you – you are a modern epic. Here I am, leafing through my notes (all ten pages of them, almost unreadable, written so small so that a page may accommodate as many thoughts as possible), and one line stands out: “This book feels like a full meal,” I said, and I meant it, and still do.
I cannot put into words just how beautiful you are, to be honest. I feel insecure. It’s like professing to the world a love that only I had the chance to feel. But I will try, for the sake of telling, probably with excessive quoting, and subtle sighs included.
Where do I start? But of course, I begin with Reverend John Ames, who in 1956 wrote a letter to his young son in order that he may not be forgotten and that he may get to be known better, lest he die soon enough to miss out on being there when his son grows up. “You may not remember me very well at all, and it may seem to you to be no great thing to have been the good child of an old man in a shabby little town you will no doubt leave behind.” And here lies the story of Gilead: the history of a small town in Iowa based on three generations of men of cloth, Ames and his father and his father before him; the story of simple lives lived with great impact on those around them; a long letter detailing incidents of love and loss, self-doubt, forgiveness, praise and acceptance. “It was just that kind the place was meant to encourage, that a harmless life could be lived here unmolested.”
Here was a man who lived a full life, and yet as he writes his letter one gets the sense that he still yearns for a bit more. “Remembering my youth makes me aware that I never really had enough of it, it was over before I was done with it.” He’s devoted his entire life to his church, and in doing so never really thought much of marriage and family until later, when he met his much younger wife and had his only son. And now he realizes that having started so late, he’s destined to miss out on a lot, and while he ought not regret this (for hasn’t he lived a full life preaching the Word of God?), it prompts a remembrance of things that have passed. Of his seventy-six years, seventy-four were spent living in Gilead.
“There must have been a hundred little towns like it, set up in the heat of an old urgency that is all forgotten now, and their littleness and their shabbiness, which was the measure of the courage and passion that went into the making of them, now just look awkward and provincial and ridiculous, even to the people who have lived here long enough to know better. It looks ridiculous to me. I truly suspect I never left because I was afraid I would not come back.”
“You can know a thing to death and be for all purposes completely ignorant of it. A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty, and love and mutual incomprehension.” And here we learn of his father and his grandfather, his predecessors even in vocation, and their relations. His father was a preacher and his grandfather a minister, and were men of clashing temperament – his father was a pacifist, while his grandfather, prompted by a vision of Christ in chains, “preached men into the Civil War,” losing his right eye while serving as a chaplain in the Union Army. “He told me once that being blessed meant being bloodied, and that is true etymologically, in English.”
John Ames explains in his letter the complications between his father and his grandfather, and of his opinions on them both. His grandfather, in particular, was quite the character: a man feared and respected, John Ames regarded him as one of those “saints and martyrs” of Gilead, albeit with a caveat. “Those saints got old and the times changed and they just seemed like eccentrics and nuisances, and no one wanted to listen to their fearsome old sermons or hear their wild old stories.”
And in his telling of his father and grandfather’s shaky relationship, we find the root of the parade of disappointments that seem to plague this story, always between father and son. “Reverend, no words could be bitter enough, no day could be long enough. There is just no end to it. Disappointment. I eat it and drink it. I wake and sleep it.”
One of those disappointments manifested in the story is his godson and namesake, John Ames “Jack” Boughton, returning after a long absence, for his father – and John Ames’s closest friend – is dying. Jack seems to have let down the Reverend in more ways than one. And here I was baffled beyond understanding, as to why John Ames should be so disappointed with him, when even Jack’s own father Old Boughton was not? Even the Reverend cannot explain why his relationship with Jack is strained – it just is. “…and it is true that we all do live in the ruins of the lives of other generations, so there is a seeming continuity which is important because it deceives us.”
Nostalgia. If I could sum up Gilead in a word, that would be it. Robinson made me feel something akin to nostalgia (which clearly isn’t the right word for me, as I’m only twenty and nostalgia is a long way off), the overflowing of regrets and absolutions, the ruminations on old age, the cheerful remembering masking quiet discontent. “I told you you might have a very different life from mine and from the life you’ve had with me, and that would be a wonderful thing, there are many ways to live a good life,” John Ames writes in his letter, and I believe this to be true. Because while Gilead is the center of the story, it is only but a stop in their journeys: the characters came, they went, they decided to stay, they might one day leave. And while this is the story of John Ames’s life as told in a letter to his son, in letting his son know that once upon a time he existed in this world, Gilead is also about a man who took a look back at his life and saw its entire duration in playback, finding out that every single moment – be it of joy, sorrow, transgression or forgiveness – mattered to his being. “It is a strange thing, after all, to be able to return to a moment, when it can hardly be said to have any reality at all, even in its passing. A moment is such a slight thing, I mean, that its abiding is a most gracious reprieve.” Reverend John Ames, in telling his young son the details of his life, gave us a glimpse of it, too, and of the little town of Gilead, and the people who made it come alive.
“When things are taking their ordinary course, it is hard to remember what matters. There are so many things you would never think to tell anyone. And I believe they may be the things that mean most to you, and that even your own child would have to know in order to know you well at all.”
PS. “There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.” Remember that.