The Way It Was, Son

Book cover
Gileadby By Marilynne RobinsonFarrar, Straus and Giroux. 247p $23

In Gilead, Marilynne Robinson’s first novel since she published Housekeeping 25 years ago, the author offers a profound, prayerfully paced narrative containing a wealth of literary consolations. To the reviewer’s bromide, “Run, don’t walk, to your nearest bookstore and buy this book,” one might add the postscript: “Bring a bag in which to carry the several gift copies you will want to purchase for friends.”

The novel’s lynchpin is its distinctive narrator, John Ames, the 76-year-old minister of a small, soon-to-be-demolished church in Gilead, Iowa. Ames suffers from a cardiac condition that makes him intensely aware of his own mortality, despite his wife’s attempt to bolster his spirits. He notes: “She said if I feel good, maybe the doctor is wrong. But at my age there’s a limit to how wrong he can be.” Ames resolves to leave a written legacy for his 7-year-old son, and his extended letter constitutes a rich spiritual patrimony bestowed by a man of little material wealth.

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Ames draws comfort from the solitude and simplicity of his rural ministry. He walks at night and ponders the burdens of that small portion of God’s people entrusted to his care. We are meant to hear in Ames’s thoughts echoes of the prophet Jeremiah: “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people?” In Iowa’s Gilead the balm seems to be Ames himself. Yet he has his own history of sadness and loss, principally the death of his first wife in childbirth and the long period of solitary living he then endured until a young woman named Lila walked into his church one Sunday and subsequently married him and had his child.

Ames’s father and grandfather were also ministers, and the first part of the novel spells out the intergenerational love and conflicts among them. The narrator’s grandfather was an eccentric, fiery preacher who raged against slavery and at times even preached with a gun in his belt. Visionary conversations with Jesus spurred him to join the Union army, where he lost an eye fighting in the Civil War. He thereafter reported, “I prefer to remember that I have kept one.” His participation in the war seriously alienated him from his pacifist son, the narrator’s father, who preached a much different view of war from his pulpit.

In the latter third of the book, Ames shifts the focus of his thoughts to Jack Boughton, the somewhat mysterious grown son of his best friend and fellow preacher. Boughton’s unexpected return to Gilead after many years away raises questions in everyone’s mind, most of all in Ames’s. Clearly Jack is the prodigal son of his family, but it takes some time for the nature of his disgrace to emerge. Ames feels torn between an instinctive fear that Jack might do some harm to Ames’s wife and child after Ames’s death, and an abiding predisposition to receive the prodigal with open arms.

Since Ames’s real son is not old enough yet to be guilty of anything morally significant, Jack Boughton’s transgressions give Ames a chance to expostulate on a wider spectrum of virtues and vices. Jack provides an occasion for Ames to act on behalf of his best friend, who is quite elderly and frail, by forgiving the sins of his son.

Ames uses the biblical figures Hagar and Ishmael to generalize about the beautiful burden of raising a child, or of relating in a Christian fashion to someone else’s adult child: “We send our children into the wilderness. Some of them on the day they are born, it seems, for all the help we can give them. Some of them seem to be a kind of wilderness unto themselves. But there must be angels there, too, and springs of water. Even that wilderness, the very habitation of jackals, is the Lord’s.”

As the days of his life pass and he moves closer to death, Ames realizes the small and large graces of growing older in his faith. He has lived long enough to outlast most of his temptations, and in the face of death he experiences a new youthfulness, in which he perceives that all of his days have been a single day: “Light is constant, we just turn over in it. So every day is in fact the selfsame evening and morning. My grandfather’s grave turned into the light, and the dew on his weedy little mortality patch was glorious.”

Robinson deftly combines the elegiac and the eulogistic into a compelling sense that this minister of a small town has a privileged view of life’s horizons and depths. Her novel reminds us that the very concept of a “balm of Gilead” has meaning only if one can first articulate the wounds and the sorrows of that community. Ames tells the story that presumably will be a balm for his son, who will have to grow into adulthood without a living father.

Gilead seeks to be a consoling balm for what ails the reader, too, whether it is the pain of feeling unforgiven or of not yet having a prodigal child within arm’s reach of forgiveness.

Editor’s Note: This title recently won the Pultizer Prize for fiction.

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