Contemplation in a World of Action
FSG, 2004, Picador (reprint edition), 2006
Reviewed by Seana Graham
Sometimes books have to wait a long time for our attention. I happen to know exactly how long Gilead had to wait for mine for an odd reason. The book was recently suggested for my reading group, and I had the vague sense I had a copy around somewhere. Much to my delight, I discovered that I did have a hardback, which I assumed that I had picked up from some used book source somewhere along the way. It was only when I was midway through the book that I realized I’d misread the name inscribed on the first page, and it wasn’t that of an anonymous stranger, but of an old friend, a journalist long since gone from town, who must have passed it on to me right around the time of its publication.
Despite her kindness, I hadn’t leapt to read the book. I had been a little disappointed by Robinson’s first novel, the much vaunted Housekeeping, and had thought that a story about a letter written from an old Midwestern minister to his very young son was probably going to be a bit too devout for the likes of me. In that I was wrong, and wrong, too, in my concern that it might still seem that way to my book group friends, who, lovely as they are, are not much inclined toward piety.
They loved it.
The story of John Ames is about his own manner of being in and seeing the world, rather than a prescription for others. Although he addresses his son, who Ames won’t live to see into adulthood, it is in many ways a summing up, a reckoning with life that Ames takes on his own account. Ames, who had been widowed far longer than he has currently been married and knows that his time left on earth is limited, is well situated to feel gratitude for the happiness that life has given him in his later years. It is Robinson’s particular gift that she can make us see the beauty of life as Ames sees it, even if we can only hold on to this for a moment.
If this account of Ames’ current situation might seem a bit too static to sustain a whole novel, don’t worry. Ames is also trying to give his son a vision of his own ancestors, who include an overly generous abolitionist preacher in the form of Ames’ one-eyed grandfather. We on the two coasts sometimes make the mistake of thinking of the Midwest as quiet and even a little dull. But that is certainly not its fiery history.
In his present life, too, an energy breaks into Ames contemplative state that he must try and come to terms with. It comes in the form of one John Ames Boughton, the minister’s namesake, whom Ames baptized in infancy. “Jack” has returned home for mysterious reasons. Another talent of Robinson’s is to make the restless and Luciferian Boughton come across as sympathetic even as Ames’ himself struggles with his own deep unease about the man. Some members of my book group felt that the novel became more interesting with his arrival. I wouldn’t say that, but I will say it becomes more gripping.
This is a novel of many layers and much beauty, more than I can possibly do justice to here. For the rest, you will just have to seek it out for yourself. And if you like the book as much as I did, you will certainly want to seek out her next one, Home, which deals with the same characters from a different perspective.
(Apologies to Thomas Merton for lifting his title for the heading.)