When it was first published I could not find Gilead anywhere. So I kind of forgot about the novel until Marilynne Robinson came up with Lila. I felt that I had to read Gilead first and went in search for it again. Ebooks do tend to make life easier that way.
In Gilead an old preacher writes a long, loving letter to his young son. He knows that his son will get to know him through stories and hearsay only, he wants to help the boy remember his father. John Ames in describing his own life also paints a picture of his father and grandfather. The first a staunch fighter against slavery who did not bother taking of his gun while preaching in church, the second a pacifist who cannot live with his father’s aggression. Both are men of the church, religion is given a different role in their lives though. John Ames is drawn to religion from an early age, even his older brother who tries to sway him from his believes by providing evidence through critical theologians only succeeds in making John a religious man who studies theology a lot and thinks everything through. After the early death of his wife and daughter he seems to have passed out on living life entirely. This changes when Lila comes into his life. John defies all convention and marries her. She and their son is what makes his old age happy. At the end of the novel Robinson contrasts Ames’ possibility to make an improper marriage to the impossibility to do the same of his namesake John Ames, Jack. Jack, who is the black sheep of the family Broughton, has fallen in love with a woman of colour. State laws forbid them from having a relationship let alone live together or have a child. He has returned home to find out whether he can come and live in Gilead with his family only to discover that his father has become too old and fragile to be confronted with this new addition to the family. Jack needs to talk to someone about his wife and finally manages to talk about her to John. John Ames does not trust Jack and has never liked him. He is convinced the man is up to no good and has set his eyes upon Lila. When he hears about his impossible love all his resentment gives way and he finally can look upon Jack with something coming close to love. For me this was a defining moment in the novel. John who does not like change and has lived his life reasoning finally comes to grips with the fact that some things just cannot be theorized upon. He does not need to convince Jack with citations from theologians, he just has to care for him. Theology is my main issue with Gilead. I am not that into it and found it hard to follow the theories and church dogma’s that are written down in Gilead. I can understand a man like John Ames going in search for answers in theology, I did not particularly need to read about it. I feel that the novel could have done with less theology and more with the beautiful and loving insights Robinson gives into American history, life in rural America and the love of an old man for his wife and child. I skipped through the theology and thoroughly enjoyed the loving words of a dying man addressing his child. I wonder what Lila is going to bring us.