Book Review: Gilead

Pulitzer Prize winner Gilead has a quiet strength that arises from the character of its narrator, John Ames, a minister in a small Iowa town who is writing a letter to his young son.  Ames, whose only son was born in his old age, wishes to speak of his life, both temporal and spiritual, to a boy who will have little memory of his father.  It is a rambling narrative that goes back at least two generations to Ames’ grandfather, a radical abolitionist minister who worked with John Brown, and then his father, a pacifist minister, who struggled with his own faith, eventually leaving the church and the town.  Ames also discusses his relationship with his best friend’s son, a young ne’er do well who returns to Gilead seemingly to make his peace with Ames and his own father.

All these complicated father and son relationships are seen through the lens of Ames’ spiritual reflections.  It is not a novel to be read quickly and I found myself going back to immerse myself in his lessons about why and how to believe.  His ideas are fresh and new even as they grow from his long life as a small town minister.   He is a man comfortable with his own doubt and that of those around him and he offers pragmatic advice for how to live a religious life in a complex world:

So my advice is this–don’t look for proofs. Don’t bother with them at all.  They are never sufficient to the question, and they’re always a little impertinent, I think, because they claim for God a place within our conceptual grasp. And they will likely sound wrong to you even if you convince someone else with them. That is very unsettling over the long term. “Let your works so shine before men,” etc. It was Coleridge who said Christianity is a life, not a doctrine, words to the effect.  I’m not saying never doubt or question. The Lord gave you a mind so that you would make honest use of it. I’m saying you must be sure that the doubts and questions are not your own, not, so to speak, the mustache and walking stick that happen to be the fashion of any particular moment.

The natural world plays a role in this novel as well from a moment of epiphany with his own father from his moments in the dark sanctuary of the old church as he prays and dozes and wakes to the light of dawn streaming through the windows.

This is a novel to put on the shelf until you find yourself in a spiritual mood, ready for contemplative prose and a story of struggle, love and forgiveness.