Gilead is a novel written from the perspective of an old preacher in a small American town who is about to die. The old preacher is married to a younger woman and is the father of a seven-year-old boy. In light of his age and the boy's, he decides to write letters to his child telling about his life past and present in the hope that this son of his will know the kind of man his father was.
To call the novel a "christian novel" would be misleading, given how shallow most other things are that have the adjective "christian" preceding them. The novel, however, is soaked in Christianity. It is like an extended exercise in the art of theological reflection, with Ames interpreting life through the lens of Scripture, spiritual experience, John Calvin, and Karl Barth, while also not shying away from those who would challenge the reality of the faith.
One such person was his brother, Edward. Heralded as the next great preacher of Gilead, he was sent off to Germany with financial backing from the church in order to study for the ministry. He came back to Gilead an atheist. This poignant dinner table scene captures the ramifications of this small-town catastrophe:
He and my father had words when he came back, once at the dinner table that first evening when my father asked him to say grace. Edward cleared his throat and replied, "I am afraid I could not do that in good conscience, sir," and the color drained out of my father's face. I knew there had been letters I was not given to read, and there had been somber words between my parents. So this was the dreaded confirmation of their fears. My father said, "You have lived under this roof. You know the customs of your family. You might show some respect for them." And Edward replied, and this was very wrong of him, "When I was a child, I thought as a child. Now that I am become a man, I have put away childish things." My father left the table, my mother sat still in her chair with tears streaming down her face, and Edward passed me the potatoes. I had no idea what was expected of me, so I took some. Edward passed me the gravy. We ate our unhallowed meal solemnly for a little while, and then we left the house and I walked Edward to the hotel.
Edward is far from the villian of the novel, however. Ames admires his brother, and calls him "a good man". Rather, the tension of the novel is created by the arrival home of John Ames Boughton, the prodigal son of Ames's good friend and fellow preacher. Boughton is a slippery character whose presence carries tremendous ambiguity. A sort of triangle forms between Ames, Boughton, and Lila (Ames's wife). This is not a sleazy love triangle, however. Ames never portrays his wife as anything but a saint. One of the most beautiful aspects of the novel is Ames's love for and fascination with his wife. Reflecting on his first sight of her at the back of his church service, he writes,
...it seemed as if she didn't belong there, but at the same time as if she were the only one of us who really did belong there.
From that moment on, Ames was captivated. Lila burst into his long-settled routine and his small corner of the world in Gilead would never be the same:
...there I was trying to write a sermon, when all I really wanted to do was try to remember a young woman's face.
The details of their marriage are captured with succinct charm:
She began to come to the house when some of the other women did, to take the curtains away to wash, to defrost the icebox. And then she started coming by herself to tend the gardens. She made them very fine and prosperous. And one evening when I saw her there, out by the wonderful roses, I said, "How can I repay you for all this?" And she said, "You ought to marry me." And I did.
Ames is marked by an appreciation and reverence for the gift of life given by God, and the gifts that make up that life. His struggle is knowing how to -- even wanting to -- share those gifts with John Ames Boughton. It is a beautiful struggle.
I will not say you need to read this book. To say so would be to abuse the word "need". But this is an exquisite book that deserves to be read. There are far too few of those being written today.