Gilead (HarperCollins, 2004) is a novel that shouldn’t work but does. And masterfully so. There’s not much action and there’s even less dialogue and yet Robinson keeps the tension tight and the reader engaged.
John Ames is in his late seventies and he knows he will die soon. He doesn’t have much in the way of worldly possessions to leave behind and so he begins a journal for his seven-year-old son. Something to impart the wisdom he has and the stories he knows. In the midst of this, his best friend’s prodigal son returns to their small town after many years away. This is John Ames Boughton, commonly called Jack, named for John Ames himself. His return is unsettling to Ames and he slowly reveals why.
The first half of the book focuses more heavily on Ames’ childhood and the relationship between his father and grandfather. Ames is the third in a line of preachers but that doesn’t necessarily translate into these men having much in common. His grandfather was an eccentric and passionate reverend who joined up in the cause of the abolitionists during the Civil War. His father, a more staid character, took a pacifist side and tension existed between the two men until the disappearance and then death of Ames’ grandfather. Ames’s childhood, his ideology, and his theology exist between these two men.
Ames’ adulthood has been marked by the tragic early death of his wife – his childhood sweetheart – and his child. Then, the miracle of love for a second time with his second wife and his son. This is where Robinson really shines. Ames isn’t excitable or effusive but the delight and shock he demonstrates continually that such happiness could be his again is truly beautiful.
Writing to his son as an adult, Ames slowly unfolds the story of his own life, not shying away from the pain and loneliness of the years before he met his wife. He lays down on paper his struggles, his delights, and his questions regarding faith and his vocation as a preacher.
And then, finally, we come to the question of Jack Boughton. The infant baptised long ago by Ames and named in his honour. A child loved beyond reason by his father but one that Ames never cared for. At first glance, Jack’s story is any other semi-sordid tale of a young man’s mistakes. But Robinson teases the story open and uses it to reveal another side to Jack, as well as a deeper understanding for Ames. Redemption may not arrive in the ways we hope or expect but it can find us nevertheless.