I have been working my way through some of the Pulitzer winners, and I came across Gilead by Marilynne Robinson and was intrigued by its premise, a letter of an elderly father to his very young son who he knows he will not live to see grow up. And the title reminded me of the hymn "There is a balm in Gilead...", which continued to run through my head every time I picked up the book.
I always find it fascinating when an author writes as a character who is very different from themselves. I think that it must be very difficult for a female author to write as a man, in this case an elderly man, about something uniquely male, such as fatherhood. This strikes me as ambitious, and I was curious as to whether she could pull it off. But as I read it, I had no trouble believing the voice--it struck me as real.
I found the idea of a father writing to tell his son all of the things that he wants him to know because he won't be there to tell him when he is old enough to hear it very poignant. How sad to know that, and yet, it's been John Ames' reality since his son was born. He feels he was blessed with a wife and child late in life and that blessing is bittersweet to him. He can't believe he really has come to know these types of love after a lifetime of loneliness, but he also knows that it is for all too brief a time. I thought this came across time and again in his writings, and it pulled at my heartstrings.
I've read three books recently--Gilead, The Road, and The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox--where the novel is one long piece. No chapters. I find this difficult as I'm an I'll-put-the-book-down-when-I-finish-reading-this-chapter kind of reader. Granted there are breaks in the writing, but it still takes getting used to. But in Gilead it makes sense because it's essentially one long letter, but I wonder if a series of letters would have been more effective. Or maybe it's meant to represent the sermon-style that John, a Calvinist preacher, is used to writing. I can only imagine how difficult it was for Robinson to keep this all organized to tell a cohesive story.
He tells us that every sermon he ever wrote is literally hanging over his head in the attic. I love that image--I think that would feel weighty to anyone! John's humanity rang true for me--he saved his work hoping it would be some sort of a legacy, but he constantly questioned whether any of it really had any lasting value. Even though I feel like Robinson deliberately didn't let us know the wife very well, I like that she seemed to think that John's work was valuable.
Robinson set herself another difficult task--her characters are introduced through a double filter. The characters are introduced to the reader only through the narrator. That's in itself is not so unusual, but John only shares the information that he wants his son to know. So, it is up to the reader to really read between the lines. What was the wife's story? Did she just see John as a means to an end? She seemed to need some stability in her life and she sensed that he was lonely, but I don't feel like that was all there was to it. Maybe she didn't love him at first, but she seems to genuinely care for him and she takes cares of him. At least, John seems satisfied with the relationship and that's what he conveys to his son.
I found several of the characters compelling. John's grandfather had a huge influence on John's life. The experience that John and his father shared as they search for and find the grandfather's grave understandably had a powerful impact on John as a young boy. Even though the emphasis was often on the grandfather, I found John's father a strong, but quiet character in his own right. John's observation of the father/son relationship between his own father and grandfather and between his father and his brother gave him plenty of examples to follow or discard as he determined his approach to fatherhood. Even though the influential men in life left Gilead, John remained. He seems at peace with that, but it seems to have given him plenty of fodder for contemplation.
John's boyhood and lifelong friend, Boughton, named his son after John. This boy, now man, seems to baffle John at every turn. Despite comforting people throughout his entire ministry, he seems perpetually unable to provide any solace for his friend's son. Boughton's son, in his actions and deeds, seem to lead to John questioning his own judgment on everything. It was interesting to me that this one character seem to be able to shake him to the core.
Boughton, also nearing the end of his life, provides John with much companionship through the years and also a view into a life he didn't get to lead. John seems to marvel at the different relationships that Boughton has with his grown children, all the while aware that he will not get to see his son as a grown man.
I thought that John's letter to his son is an act of love and the writing seems infused with feeling. I loved that he didn't preach to his son on how he should live his life. It was much gentler than that. I was particularly touched by this quote:
"But hope deferred is still hope. I love this town. I think sometimes of going into the ground here as a last wild gesture of love--I too will smolder away the time until the great and and general incandescence. I pray that you grow up a brave man in a brave country. I pray that you will find a way to be useful. I'll pray and then I'll sleep."