I'm not sure I would ever have read this book if my wife had not liked it so much. I had heard of it and knew that it was very highly regarded by critics, but that alone doesn't mean a great deal to me. But while my wife was reading it she read me a few passages that were very impressive. And then when she finished she bought half a dozen copies to give away (used copies, I note, so it was not a huge expense). So I thought with that kind of testimony on record I should move it up higher on my list.
It's as good as she said. It's the sort of book of which I can either say a little or a lot, spending either minutes or hours, and since my free time is limited I'm going to make it minutes.
Gilead is a novel, but the narrative is pretty slight. It almost seems more like a series of reflections or meditations than a novel, but those reflections are rich and illuminating. I considered marking passages that were especially worthy of remembering, then realized I'd be marking almost every page. I'm quite sure I'll read it again, and there aren't many books of which I'll say that.
Gilead is a small town in Iowa, and the book's narrator is an old man, John Ames, who expects to die soon, and the book takes the form of a sort of journal written to and for his young son, or rather to the grown man that the son will one day be. Ames is a Congregationalist minister, and it was a surprise to me, as it probably would be to many Catholics, that he is in many essential ways very orthodox in his faith. The writing of the journal takes place in the 1950s, and the recounting of his experiences reaches back into the lives of his father and grandfather, both also Congregationalist ministers. The grandfather had moved to Kansas from Maine in the years preceding the Civil War for the purpose of assisting in the fight against slavery, helping escaped slaves and participating in the "direct action," as a modern revolutionary might call it, of John Brown. The intensity of the grandfather's convictions and his disturbingly direct implementation of the demands of the Gospel have effects which reach down into the present day.
In addition to the filling-in of this family history, there are events contemporaneous to the writing of the journal. These involve the very wayward son of a friend (also a minister, but a Lutheran) who was named after Ames, and who presents Ames with certain personal challenges. None of this involves any extremely dramatic events, but it all adds up to a picture of one life and glimpses into others. And I understand that in Robinson's other books these glimpses are expanded--her most recent, Lila, is about Ames's wife--and I'm sure each illuminates the others in many ways.
Ames's own son is the product of a late and unexpected marriage, and the marriage and child constitute for Ames a blessing unhoped-for and in his mind even unmerited. This is the central fact upon which the most striking thing about the novel is built: a sense of enormous gratitude. Because I don't want to do the work of trying to describe that aspect of it, I opened the book to a random page to see if a passage sufficient to illustrate the point would present itself. That page had some good things, but I knew there were better, so I opened to another random page, and this is what I found:
I'd never have believed I'd see a wife of mine doting on a child of mine. It still amazes me every time I think of it. I'm writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you've done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God's grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle. You may not remember me very well at all, and it may seem to you to be no great thing to have been the good child of an old man in a shabby little town you will no doubt leave behind. If only I had the words to tell you.
There's a shimmer in a child's hair, in the sunlight. There are rainbow colors in it, tiny, soft beams of just the same colors you can see in the dew sometimes. They're in the petals of flowers, and they're on a child's skin. Your hair is straight and dark, and your skin is very fair. I suppose you're not prettier than most children. You're just a nice-looking boy, a bit slight, well scrubbed and well mannered. All that is fine, but it's your existence I love you for, mainly. Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined. I'm about to put on imperishability. In an instant, in the twinkling of an eye.
The twinkling of an eye. That is the most wonderful expression. I've thought from time to time it was the best thing in life, that little incandescence you see in people whn the charm of a thing strikes them, or the humor of it. "The light of the eyes rejoiceth the heart." That's a fact.
So if you want to figure that the odds of happening on a passage like that on a page chosen randomly suggest that there are many such passages, you'd be right.