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Grace Notes
By Margaret Black

Gilead
By Marilynne Robinson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 256 pages, $23

Most fans of literary fiction take a fairly secular-humanist attitude to their reading experience, whatever their private religious beliefs. When confronted with a novel written entirely within one religious tradition, like Christianity, many sophisticated readers will avoid it, suspecting a didactic tract seeking to convert the reader or a thinly disguised devotional work. So a novel like Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead can present real problems, especially since readers have waited so long for her to follow up on her brilliant (and not identifiably religious) first novel, Housekeeping.

Gilead takes the form of a memoir written in 1956 by John Ames, an elderly dying minister, for his beloved 7-year-old son. The novel explores aspects of Christian faith with great knowledge and feeling, and the author assumes that readers will be familiar with the meaning of ceremonies such as baptism and communion. She assumes they will be interested in what Ames has to say about God’s presence in the world. This is quite a leap of faith, but Robinson is such an accomplished writer that, like some wily magician in a fairy tale, she enchants even grumpy, resistant readers.

Ames is a rarity. He’s a completely convincing Good Man—decent, fearsomely honest, generous, kindhearted—who has lived his entire life in the tiny town of Gilead, Iowa. A minister, like his father and grandfather before him, Ames marries as a young man, but loses his wife in childbirth and his baby daughter shortly thereafter. For the next 40 years he ministers to his small flock, paying close attention to everything around him and reflecting on everything he reads and experiences. Then suddenly one day a young woman enters his little church seeking shelter from the rain, and Ames discovers—in this life, in this here and now—amazing love. The story of Ames falling in love is a comic tour de force, not simply because he’s 70 and she’s in her early 20s, but because he’s made so confused, so distracted, and so awkward by his love. Because he now loves very specifically, he is also forced to acknowledge that his beliefs may be tried beyond his ability to act appropriately.

Two plots structure this novel that at first appears plotless. One concerns the return to Gilead of Ames’s namesake and godson, John Ames Boughton, or Jack. Ames writes with disarming honesty about his relationship with Jack and with his closest friend, Jack’s father. But the author also inserts another level of insight not perceived by Ames. While Ames acknowledges that he covets Boughton’s large family, resents Jack’s having been given his name, and wishes that Jack’s father, in his absence, had not baptized Ames’s daughter with the wrong name, Ames makes little of his distress. We, on the other hand, can see that he actually has very strong feelings. Baby Jack grows into a charming, but manipulative boy—his father’s favorite. Ames knows him to be sly, with a nasty mean streak, and eventually Jack is forced to leave town because of callous misbehavior. When the middle-aged prodigal son returns, Ames knows that Jack has some ulterior motive. He has definitely not come home to comfort his old father.

Ames fears Jack as well, particularly after Jack develops an easy friendship with Ames’ wife and son. Although Ames doesn’t want to die and wishes he weren’t old, he doesn’t fear death. But he now comprehends that he can in no way protect those he loves after he dies: “We fly forgotten as a dream, certainly, leaving the forgetful world behind us to trample and mar and misplace everything we have ever cared for.”

This sorrowful recognition echoes the second plot of the novel—the story of Ames, his father, and his grandfather as ministers of God. Where the first plot examines the plight of an individual trying to live rightly in the face of his life’s particular circumstances, the second considers the problem of trying to live rightly in history. In the 1850s, Ames’ terrifying abolitionist grandfather receives a vision of Christ in chains and instantly leaves his native state of Maine for Kansas, where he fights furiously to ensure that Kansas enters the Union as a free state. He loses an eye during the Civil War (“I am confident that I will find great blessing in it,” he announces), and afterwards continues to thunder for social justice, happily stealing from anyone who has (however little) and giving to anyone who does not. Ames’s father, however, is transformed by his horrendous experience of World War I into a pacifist, much to the grandfather’s disgust. As the grandfather sees the situation for black people deteriorating, even in the small haven of peace that Gilead is meant to be, he declares, “No good has come, no evil is ended,” and departs like a maddened King Lear for Kansas.

The two plots work subtly, with powerful cumulative effect, but along the way we are seduced by the author’s wonderful, often funny details: of light coming through drops of water, a child in trapdoor pajamas trying to fix a broken crayon, a home health-care book “a good deal more particular than Leviticus,” a supper on the stove that “smoked and sputtered like some unacceptable sacrifice.” As Ames’s son holds an unwilling cat under his arms, “her ears were flattened back and her eyes were patiently furious and her tail was twitching.” When 12-year-old Ames and his father finally find the grandfather’s grave in Kansas, “it was the most natural thing in the world that my grandfather’s grave would look like a place where someone had tried to smother a fire.”

Ames has had the hope that in Gilead “a harmless life could be lived there unmolested.” Marilynne Robinson both shows this to be false, and yet ends her book with hope and grace.

 


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