Sometime last year, or was it the year before, I picked up Gilead by Marilynne Robinson and started to read. It didn’t draw me in and I thought that life was too short to struggle when there were plenty of other books to hand. Fast forward a year or so and isn’t it amazing what a challenge can do? The revered DoveGreyReader has a column at the left-hand side of her blog showing the heap of books that she is “currently reading”. I spied Gilead nestling near the top of that heap and that was enough. The hat was thrown in the ring and I picked it up.
An elderly preacher who has been blessed with a late marriage at 67 and the birth of a son when he was almost 70 fears his imminent death at 76 and sets out to write a letter to his son setting out, as he puts it, the family’s begats and all the things he has never said because he has spent his whole life studying and writing sermons. The book is a shock to the system. It is like nothing I have read before and I’m sure that is why I had to set it aside when I first encountered it. Life in the small town of Gilead is quiet and slow-moving and I think that is another reason why I struggled with my first attempt. The slowing down of my own life over the Christmas holidays went a long way to preparing me for this attempt. I stumbled a little before page 50 but the knowledge that DoveGrey Reader was with me somewhere on the same road was a comfort and I girded my loins, took a long slow breath and found my pace.
This book most reminds me of the fragmented accounts and stories passed to my sisters and me by our maternal grandmother. Gentle soft conversation washing over you as you hardly concentrate. Each small piece of information doesn’t mean much but put it altogether and you begin to build a picture of a person, a family, a time. You can only touch the edge of all that has gone before as your life is ahead of you but you can be sure that all that has occurred is part of what you are and will be. As I read it caused me to reflect upon my own family. My grandfather was 76 when my father was born. It the one photo that I have seen of him, he, like Ames, sports a long beard. It must have been strange for hime to have a young family years after his “first children” were fully grown. How I would have liked him to have written a letter to my father, his 3 year old child, in his last few days before he died aged 79.
Ames, often alludes to some shame in the life of his godson John Ames Broughton. Were this a more action-packed book I would have been impatient to discover the full story but if anything this book teaches you patience. John Ames will not be hurried, he is getting old and by the end of the book we come to realise that not even he knows the full story.
Ames talks of Fuerbach and Calvin and other religious and philosophical writers. I have heard of the latter but not the former and I’m sure that anyone who is familiar with the works of these and others will garner far more from “Gilead” than I ever could as could those who are familiar with American history. When I had finished I had to run off and google “Free Soilers”. Maybe I need to make myself a time line and hang a few events on it and read around the subject. Now where does March by Geraldine Brooks slot in?