Gilead

I thrill at the power of religious language. But it sets my alarm bells off in a hurry. After all, there’s an important difference between realism and usefulness, on the one hand, and confabulation, on the other. So while I don’t buy the theological tradition of Reverend John Ames, I do buy John Ames, wholly. I love him in a way that I haven’t loved another fictional character since Lyman Ward in Stegner’s Angle of Repose, Ántonia Shimerdas in Cather’s My Ántonia, and the blind woman in Saramago’s Blindness. One of the central images in Gilead is the “palpable currents of light” that arc between the rising moon and setting sun in the twilight sky of Kansas, where John Ames, then a young boy, and his father are tending to the blighted gravesite of grandpa Ames. There, the future Reverend Ames stands as a young boy, rapt between the rising moon and setting sun, between the birth and death of life at that very instant. The image nicely illustrates one of the spiritual insights of the synoptic Gospels. Anyone can participate in the miracle of reality, this present moment, here, now. “May those who have eyes, see; and those who have ears, hear.” And that’s precisely what John Ames does, he sees and listens to everything, to his friends and parishioners, to the prairie life of Iowa and Kansas, and to his own personal joys and sorrows. Then there’s the leitmotif of water. John Ames (again a young boy) throwing a baseball with his older brother Edward, who after working up a good sweat baptizes himself with a glass of tap water; or the couple who soak themselves with glistening beads of dew by shaking a bough of a tree. And lastly, Gilead offers powerful reassurance that the significance of one moment can redeem the darkness of many long years, and that the hope and faith we have in the existence of this one moment, beyond the horizon, isn’t entirely misplaced.

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5 Responses to Gilead

  1. Trevor says:

    I just recommended this book (not the first time) to my brother. Perhaps if I point him to this post he will be convinced he should read it.

  2. Shipsa01 says:

    I also have recommended this book to my co-workers, pastor, father and as my answer anytime someone asks me ‘what’s a great book to read?’

    The funny thing is – when they ask why I love it so much, I have difficulty explaining myself. I find that I just say it’s a really beautiful book. Maybe the most beautiful book I ever read. And I’m not sure I sell them on it – but I hope.

  3. antonia says:

    it sounds like a much more positive book than housekeeping. i did like housekeeping, but it seems like in gilead, all the sensitivity of the people, their observations, their sense of self is not cut off and detached from the world. i thought there was always a strong likeable element about the people in housekeeping and maybe now turned to something more reconciliatory or so…hmm have to think about it. but your review made gilead go up a bit higher in the pile of books. i just also had read my antonia and liked her too.

  4. George Brodie says:

    Some time ago a teacher/friend of mine asked me it I could think of a good novel where the protagonist was a genuinely good man. I couldn’t think of one. After I read Gilead I had read a great novel about genuinely good man. I have recommended it to many and I will continue to do so.

  5. Kevin Neilson says:

    Hi all, great to see you.

    Trevor and Shipsa, I almost always recommend this book. Even to low-brow readers, pardon the snootiness!

    Antonia, I’m with you on Housekeeping. There’s a claustrophobia about it, isn’t there? Like you I enjoyed the novel, but nursed a dim, inarticulate grievance throughout.

    George, with you about Reverend Ames being a good man. He looks like H. Bloom’s ideal reader, in fact. Someone who has a dialogue with himself. About solitude, death, and other weighty matters.

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