Set in Iowa, it is a story told by a dying Congregationalist preacher, John Ames, to his seven-year-old son. It begins as a diary, strays into family history, and ends with a focus on Ames's namesake, Jack Boughton, a prodigal son who has returned home burdened by an unspoken past.
The diary style of the book is fascinating as it examines Ames's grandfather, a zealous abolitionist who had moved to Kansas in the 1850s and had justified the use of violence to eradicate slavery. Robinson has a sly way of enlightening the reader about Ames as well as the grandfather at this time.
Where the diary style completely fails is in the frank discussion of contemporary events. It's fascinating nonetheless, but hard to justify telling a son about.
What I liked about Gilead was Robinson's treatment of faith. Ames is a solid, grounded Believer who has been tempted and tried. His brother had become an athiest at university in Germany, and his father (also a minister) had even encouraged him to get out of Iowa. Ames had stayed, and I really enjoyed his voice--his faith.
I want to reflect upon a few quotes from the book that really were powerful.
"I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and
sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its
eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us,
but it is only lovelier for that, when we have all been changed and put on
incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and
impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the
whole world to us. In eternity this world will by Troy, I believe, and all
that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in
the streets. Because I don't imagine any reality putting this one in the
shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try." (57)
Now I'm a serious Homer-phile, but I like the treatment of earth's history as Troy--the most celebrated battle of all time.
Robinson also makes a sublime connection between the 10 Commandments and Creation.
"[The 10 Commandments] to me seem almost a retelling of Creation--First there is
the Lord, then the Word, then the Day, then the Man and Woman--and after that
Cain and Abel--Thou shalt not kill--and all the sins recorded in those
prohibitions, just as crimes are recorded in the laws against them. So
perhaps the tablets differ as addressing the eternal and the temporal." (139)
I just know I'm going to use the following quote many times in the future:
"How do you tell a scribe from a prophet...? The prophets love the people
they chastise, a thing this [scribe] does not appear to me to do" (142).
On the issue of doubt, there is more sage wisdom:
"Don't look for proofs. Don't bother with them at all. They are
never sufficient to the question, and they're always a little impertinent, I
think, because they claim for God a place within our conceptual grasp. And
they will likely sound wrong to you even if you convince someone else with
them. That is very unsettling over the long term. "Let your woks so
shine before men," etc. It was Coleridge who said Christianity is a life,
not a doctrine, words to that effect. I'm not saying never doubt or
question. The Lord gave you a mind so that you would make honest use of
it. I'm saying you must be sure that the doubts and questions are your
own, not, so to speak, the mustache and walking stick that happen to be the
fashion of any particular moment" (179).
Finally, I'll include Ames's ruminations on the issue of memory. They are beautiful, touching and heartbreaking:
"I wish I could give you the memory I have of your mother that day. I
wish I could leave you certain of the images in my mind, because they are so
beautiful that I hate to think they will be extinguished when I am. Well,
but again, this life has its own mortal loveliness. And memory is not
strictly mortal in its nature, either. 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" (162).