Review: Gilead

21 May 2021 | Reviews | Dawn Martindale

Gilead is the story of Rev. John Ames. In 1956, at the age of 76, Rev. John Ames (Son of Rev. John Ames, and grandson of Rev. John Ames) begins writing to his not quite 7-year-old son. The book is that letter. The setting for the story is the fictional small town of Gilead, Iowa, where he has lived almost his whole life (His family moved there from Kansas when he was 2 years old.)

  • Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, 2006.

Although he feels well Rev. John Ames has been diagnosed with a heart condition and realises that he won’t be around too much longer. Wanting his young son to know all about his father, the book is about various stories of his life, and about who he is. Stories that he feels it would be good to pass on to the next generation. John Ames describes this as writing his young son’s ‘begats.’

Going into ministry was just natural for Ames, and he went to Seminary when old enough. He initially took his Father’s ‘pulpit’ in his early 20’s after finishing seminary when his father ‘went south for a few months’ for the sake his mother’s health. But what was meant to be temporary became permanent; and, even at the time of writing the letter, he remains the pastor of this small church in a small town.

As Rev. John Ames writes he moves often between the present (of 1956) and the past, and so a story in the present unfolds alongside, and in between, the ‘begats.’ The writing takes place over at least 6 months. He tells his Son a variety of stories from across his life and you get a feel for his family. At times the stories have a particular focus on a member of his family. His grandfather often features, but so also do his mother, his father, and his elder brother. The stories are not set in chronological order because one story often triggers an entirely different memory: He often writes ‘as he remembers events’ rather than in time sequence.

As well as one story sometimes triggering the memory of another story, events in his present also trigger stories. He talks about how it is now: being a Father at this late time in his life; what his son is like just now as a young boy; and about his relationships. He reflects on many of his relationships, both now, and further back in the past, especially those with his wife and with his best friend Boughton, and Boughton’s family. (Boughton is also a pastor in a different denomination). We see the development of some of Ames’ key relationships over time.

As well as stories from across his life, there are, mixed into his writing, moments of reflection on life, ministry, theology, and beauty. Some of these are quite philosophical in nature, and that is part of the beauty of this book. It is well written and fascinating. As you read, you get a really good feel for the kind of person that Rev. John Ames is. He is a kind, wise, and thoughtful pastor. It gives insight into what being in ministry can feel like, and how it is the whole of life. It also gives food for thought in some areas of theology. Of particular interest to contemporary times is the section on preaching through the Spanish Flu epidemic.

Gilead is the first in a series of three books about the life of Rev. John Ames, his wife, and his best friend. ‘Home’ and ‘Lila’ fill in some of the gaps that are left when Gilead comes to an end. ‘Home’ focuses on the story of his friend Boughton a bit more, and ‘Lila’ focuses more on the story of his wife.

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