Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson
This is not your standard book review. It’s more like a reaction…
I’d heard of this book somewhere, then my mom said that she heard it mentioned on a radio show discussing excellent Christian literary fiction. Then the clincher was that two women in my writing group were talking about reading it as we were leaving our meeting. They are such lovely women, but they have never given me the impression that they are concerned with religion or spiritual things, so this really got my attention.
So I decided, okay, this book is worth reading, and reading NOW (not in a year or 2 when I’ll get it from the library or a used bookstore). So I bought it (used a gift card, of course) from Indigo, and decided I’d try to get right into it by sitting down (a comfy chair was available in the fiction section!) and reading the first chapter.
It was very easy to get into. The narrator, Reverend John Ames, is obviously a gentle, kind-hearted, godly man who cares deeply for his little son (7 years old, John is 76, I think) and his precious wife (who is about 36; she told John he should marry her). He talks about people and events from his past with his father (including an arduous trip with him at age 12), and grandfather (and the rift between his father and grandfather), and his best friend and the town’s preacher, Boughton.
Then he comes back to the present, and writes about the simple pleasures of watching his little son play, their kitten chasing bubbles, walking in the dark morning to church, and the guys at the gas station laughing, and you feel his great joy in living and his sorrow in leaving this earth.
There were times when I was confused about who some of the characters were (that he’d also mentioned many pages earlier), and some events were fuzzy in my mind as I read them, but it was still interesting. I’d read through about a third or half of the book when I began to get antsy to know what the point of the book was. Was anything going to actually happen, after all the introduction to all these characters? I skimmed a bit, but I didn’t have to wait long.
John increasingly becomes worried about Jack Boughton (the wayward, sly son of his friend) having a bad influence, or even harming, his wife and son, who are very enamored with Jack when he comes for a rare, unexplained visit. The Reverend admits his dread of Jack, someone he cannot understand, and could never trust. You feel miserable with him, because the Reverend is going to die soon, and the two most precious people may be devoured by this evil man after he is gone. And we already know that Jack in the past has preyed upon an very young innocent girl and left her with a child to raise in abject poverty (and the child died, and the mother’s life was ruined). It was such a sickening feeling to me; I had to rush ahead to find out what would happen. And you never know in these literary novels if there will be a happy ending, either.
Well, the most precious thing happens. Jack confides in the Reverend what he cannot confide in his own father, because it might kill his father to know the awful things he has done. But we see in Jack genuine repentance for his mistakes, and respect for his family, and the beginnings of attitudes of responsibility. Jack begs the Reverend to put in a good word for him with his dad after he leaves. The Reverend blesses him, puts his hand on his forehead and repeats the Old Testament blessing, and when he walks him to the bus, he tells him “We all love you, you know.” And Jack says, “You’re all saints.”
It brings tears to my eyes as I write it, how John Ames could truly hate this young man, and then listen to Jack’s troubles and feelings of shame and helplessness to change, and ultimately feel such compassion for him, that he loves him, and becomes his friend and ally. A true pastor; so precious. John fulfills his promise to speak about Jack to Boughton, Jack’s dad, and does so while he is in a deep sleep, knowing the news would leave him “alone in his confusions of grief, and I just did not have the strength to witness that.” (page 243, awesome)
The story made me drop off my own judgments and realize how much more holy–and reasonable–forgiveness and love are. I pray that this will continue and be a pattern of grace in my life.