"That's the strangest thing about this life, about being in the ministry," writes John Ames, the narrator of Marilynne Robinson's new novel Gilead. "People change the subject when they see you coming. And then sometimes those very same people come into your study and tell you the most remarkable things." Ames, at 77, knows his life is about to end. He writes to his 7-year-old son, the child of his old age, reflecting on a minister's vocation, on life in the small Iowa town of Gilead, on his grandfather's Civil War service, on his father's pacifism, on his brother's loss of faith.
He writes, as well, to warn his son about a bad influence: Jack Boughton, the son of Ames' best friend and fellow minister; Boughton broke his father's heart by leaving an illegitimate son behind in Gilead and going to seek his fortune. Now the prodigal has returned, insinuating himself with the womenfolk through his easy charm, and daring to call Ames "Papa" and Ames' boy "brother." Ames' Christianity, as influenced by Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Barth, and the New York Yankees, leaves behind simple judgment and embraces the complex truth of relationships. But he cannot forgive Jack's sins, even though Jack didn't really sin against him.
In the humble, quiet language of a man who has written thousands of sermons but now finds it more important to listen than to declaim, Ames tells his son the most remarkable things. And when his subject changes, he has the wisdom to follow the thread where it leads. Gilead is Robinson's first novel since Housekeeping in 1981; she's spent the intervening time on essays and journalism. Gilead resembles Housekeeping in its first-person narration and rural setting. But fans will be astounded by how powerfully Robinson creates an entirely different kind of protagonist than Housekeeping's orphaned sisters: an accomplished patriarch with tight family ties. Still, Gilead has the same sense that family can be a result of choice as well as biology.
"There's a lot under the surface of life, everyone knows that," Ames continues. By the end of this moving, revealing, beautiful novel, he has found what's under the surface of troublesome Jack, and his effort to communicate it to his son has the intensity of a deathbed confession: "I just don't know another way to let you see the beauty there is in him."