I’ve always envied men who could watch their wives grow old. Boughton lost his wife five years ago, and he married before I did. His oldest boy has snow white hair. His grandchildren are mostly married. And as for me, it is still true that I will never see a child of mine grow up and I will never see a wife of mine grow old. I’ve shepherded a good many people through their lives, I’ve baptized babies by the hundred, and all that time I have felt as though a great part of life was closed to me. Your mother says I was like Abraham. But I had no old wife and no promise of a child. I was just getting by on books and baseball and fried-egg sandwiches.
Gilead is a book told in two chapters…the first chapter being about 215 pages long, and the second chapter being the last 32 pages. It is told in the form of a letter written by a dying, elderly preacher, John Ames, to his 7 year old son. He knows that his son will miss out on knowing his father as he grows up, and wants to leave something of his true self to the boy. The title, Gilead, refers to the fictional small Iowa town in which they live. A town famous for its involvement in the abolitionist movement prior to the Civil War. In fact, the narrator’s grandfather went on many guerrilla type missions with the famous John Brown.
Ames wants to give his son a taste for his thoughts, dreams, and hopes. He wants his son to understand his theological views on the world. He wants him to know how much the love of his wife and child have meant to him, though they came late in his life. He tells stories of his grandfather, of his journey with his father to find the grave of his grandfather after he disappears, and of his brother’s struggle with religion in a house full of preachers. He tells of his friendship with his best friend, Boughton, which has spanned their lifetimes. He tells of his namesake, John Ames Boughton, aka, ‘Jack’, the son of his best friend, whom he deeply distrusts as a man of no honor. He spends quite a bit of time writing to his son about how he dislikes Jack, how he does not trust him, how he fears that Jack will take advantage of his wife after he is gone. This anger and distrust for Jack takes up a large part of the first chapter, and a large part of Ames’ thoughts and energies.
In the second chapter, Jack tells the reverend a startling story of his own life, one that in some ways is completely different than that of Ames, but also one that Ames can sympathize with totally, and one that allows Ames to let go of his anger and distrust for the younger man.
A couple of my book blog friends have also read this book, and loved it. They said they loved the contemplative nature of the writing, the depth of feeling and the meandering tale. Me? Not so much. I found myself bored by most of the book. There were moments that touched me, and I have to wonder if I would have been more pulled into the tale if I were religious, so that the references to scripture meant more to me. I’m not sure. The themes he addresses are universal, so they should reach out universally, right? I liked the ending, liked the last 100 pages more than the rest of the book. I don’t know that I would recommend this book, since I wasn’t thrilled by it myself, though I have to wonder if Starshine’s new Husby, having just graduated from Seminary, might really enjoy it, and get far more from it than I did. Looking at the reviews on Amazon, clearly many people have really loved this book.
Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 2005, and is the 4th book I’ve read so far for my Book Awards Reading Challenge.