Category Archives: Contemporary
Beautifully written with compelling characters and effectively situated in a time and place easy to envision, Gilead still felt very ephemeral for me. By the end I wasn’t entirely sure what I was supposed to have gotten from it, or even what the author was trying to get across. The book is an epistolary, essentially a series of interconnected letters, written by John Ames, a 77 year old preacher in the fictional small town of Gilead, IA, to his 7 year old son. Ames has a weak heart and doesn’t expect to live long, so he decided to write to his son with ruminations on his family including his abolitionist grandfather and atheist brother, his second marriage to a much younger woman, his view of life, death, religion, his ministry, and about the family of his best friend, another preacher named Boughton and his son John Ames Boughton who reappears after being away for many years.
The most compelling parts of this book for me were the sections dealing with Rev. Ames’s family history. His grandfather, also a preacher, was a rabid abolitionist and collaborator with John Brown and others during the time before the Civil War when the fight over whether Kansas would be a slave or free state was occurring. Known as “bleeding Kansas” this time saw a number of atrocities committed by both sides trying to assert control in the state. The implication in this story is that Ames’s grandfather was involved in these atrocities which placed a strain on his relationship with his son trying to reconcile what must have been a disconcerting juxtaposition of his father as a preacher, with the violence he apparently committed. Placing the narrative in relation to an historic event like this, one that dovetails with the religious ruminations of Ames, is very effective.
Setting the book in the Midwest during the 1950s had some resonance for me as well. Much of the book is devoted to the history of the town of Gilead. Having grown up in nearby Minnesota, much of it reminded me of the small towns I have visited tracking down my own family’s history. Descriptions of the people, the geography, and what daily life was like in the late 19th and early 20th centuries felt familiar to me, though of course I didn’t experience them first hand.
The major issue I had with the book was its overall theological theme. I think the author was trying to explore the deeper questions of existence, life after death, the nature of grace and forgiveness and the notion that our five senses cannot possibly comprehend all that exists. The implication the author wants us to conclude therefore, is that one has to have faith that an eventual revelation of this wonder would be made known to us by a higher power (God). Put into modern day terms Ames would be considered a relatively liberal Christian, willing to take seriously the opinions of atheists and others who did not subscribe to his beliefs. I did appreciate this. However, I have always believed that religion, no matter how deeply felt, cannot help but limit ones world view. No matter how one tries to interpret it, the documents and traditions of religious belief will always put a limit on the scope of knowledge – and limit the interpretation of discovery. Freeing ones mind from religious restrictions for me opens up many more possibilities for comprehending the universe than any belief system can possibly provoke. As Carl Sagan famously said, “We all have a thirst for wonder. It’s a deeply human quality. Science and religion are both bound up with it…you don’t have to make stories up, you don’t have to exaggerate. There’s wonder and awe enough in the real world. Nature’s a lot better at inventing wonders than we are.”
So, as Ames tried to wend his way toward finding the answers to questions he was asking through the use of scripture and the interpretive work of others, it seemed like he was looking for gaps that might let him expand his view, when to me freeing himself of those texts altogether would have enabled him to do so more quickly and more effectively. By the end I was not really sure if he had elevated his understanding or not. I found this somewhat frustrating, though I recognize I come from a place in terms of faith that most who have read this book probably do not.
I can see why this novel has received so much praise, it really is compelling writing. So despite the let down I felt at the end I would still recommend it very highly!
Bucket Source (Pulitzer Prize Winner – Fiction, 2005 | National Book Critics Circle Award, 2005)
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