The ministry is a unique and difficult occupation. Laypersons expect preachers to be closer to God and live on a higher plain of morality. Reverend John Ames, third in a generation of preachers, lives in a small, unexceptional Iowa town. He loves the ministry but admits to shortcomings everyone possesses. His humanity makes this soul-searching account of his life and family history all the more compelling.
John has remarried and become a father late in life. Now, nearing death, he is writing a letter to his son who, at age seven, is too young yet to understand it. He tells the boy of John’s grandfather, an abolitionist preacher, who came to the Midwest to help fugitive slaves during the Civil War. His support for the Union cause, to the point of calling men to arms from the pulpit, became a source of friction between the grandfather and John’s own father.
The novel harkens back to the days when ladies brought meals to the preacher’s house because the congregation was so poor that the man hired himself out as a day laborer to make ends meet. Those of us who have lived through the era of superstar televangelists could learn a great deal from this account of the burdens their ancestors have borne in their determination to answer God’s call.
Struggle pervades the novel, from John’s account of a journey with his father to find his grandfather’s grave, to watching his father and his flock demolish the remains of a fire-ruined church in the rain. He cherishes the memory of his father offering him half of a soot-covered biscuit as “communion from my father’s hand.” Of the Great Depression he observes, “It is a good thing to know what it is to be poor, and a better thing if you can do it in company.”
The preacher’s many anecdotes include the unsolved mystery of a murdered farmer that so traumatized the community’s children that they were afraid to milk the cows without a guardian; and the humorous story of a stranger whose horse’s weight collapsed a tunnel that the townspeople had dug to protect fugitive slaves.
John has maintained a lifelong friendship with Robert Boughton, preacher of another denomination, whose own son grew up as the town rebel and a disgrace to the family. Now, with old Boughton senile and near death, Jack Boughton has returned inexplicably after a long absence. John fears that Jack is secretly plotting to replace him as husband to his young wife and father to his innocent young son.
Although I occasionally got lost in John’s philosophical musings, Gilead is an intimate ramble through his family history and his theology. One gets the sense of a man who, despite his age and wisdom, is still struggling to understand life. Through it all, he remains faithful to God, recognizing that he is no more virtuous than anyone in his flock, and that he needs God’s help as much as they do. Marilynne Robinson’s second novel is a gift to the community of readers, to be accepted with gratitude and savored.