By Marilynne Robinson,
Christian fiction has long been forced into the uncomfortable pose of allegory, where every character in the story represents a character trait of the pilgrim and every event parallels a station in the pilgrimage of Christian life. Why do we accept the assumption that there would be an ideal human life against which every person’s story must measure itself? There was only one ideal life, and the one who lived it wasn’t someone like you and me. For people like you and me, as Pulitzer prize winner Marilynne Robinson writes in the first lines of Gilead, …there are many ways to live a good life. Then she proceeds to tell us the story of one very good life indeed.
In letters written to his 7-year-old son, a dying old man (John Ames) tries to gather everything he has ever thought and experienced into those last most important words, words about God, about people he has loved, about the necessary expense of human life in tears and laughter.
John Ames is a minister, and as such is intensely conscious of how God’s ministers are set apart not only by God, but also by the people they serve. He is treated as if he were sacred himself. Ames knows full well how weak and failing a specimen he is.
The story intertwines four experiences of time. First, the long history of the Ames family. The reader can sense this entire family history pressing through John Ames’s life. It is the story of Maine Abolitionists moving to Kansas before the civil war, and is filled with heart-breaking and hilarious events surrounding their attempts to “free the slaves”.
Second, we hear the story of Ames’s own lifetime, which, it turns out, has been closely tied up with that of his best friend and rival, Boughton. Boughton is from another denomination, and the two men argue constantly about the mysteries of their faith. Ames becomes the Godfather of Boughton’s first child, Jack, who himself turns away from God, and turns fully to the modern life of the 1950’s.
Third, the immediate present of Ames’s life floats to the surface of the narration, like the lovely bubbles he watches his son blow, and the sensitive remarks of his illiterate, but deeply intelligent wife.
And finally, the future is always present, that time into which John Ames is not able to project himself, but which haunts him. He will soon be leaving his wife and son behind with no resources. He imagines being forgotten: “If you remember me at all, you may find me explained a little by what I am telling you”.
All of these times are condensed into the arrival of young Jack Boughton on the doorstep one day. Jack needs something that engages everything the Ames’ family has ever cared about. For all his dignity and depth as a human being, the dying man expends his last bit of energy not knowing how to rise to the occasion.
Gilead By Marilynne Robinson, Picador: New York, 2004