A few reflections on Marilynne Robinson’s novel “Gilead”
John Ames was dying. Of course in this life we are all terminal the moment we exit the womb. So many heartbeats; so many breathes in and breathes out; so many seconds, minutes, hours, days, years. Then we will be gone. Grim prospect that is, but it is what happens between that first and last breath that defines, for better or for worse, what our life is.
John Ames, the Congregational pastor in Gilead, Iowa was dying. At the time Marilynne Robinson writes his story in her somewhat strange but moving novel titled “Gilead”, he is in his mid-seventies. He is writing a chronicle for his young seven year old son; the son of his old age birthed by his much younger bride who had brought solace to him so many, many years after his first wife had died in childbirth. John Ames wants to leave his young son something through which after his death, his son can connect to his father and to the heritage that is his through his father. It is that epistle of the dying John Ames to his son that is the content of “Gilead”.
There are a number of story threads woven throughout “Gilead”, but perhaps among the more compelling ones is that relating to John Ames’ abolitionist grandfather; the Congregational minister from New England who was a Kansas Jayhawker and friend of John Brown of “moldering in his grave” fame, as well as acquaintance of that grim chieftain, Jim Lane; the grandfather who went marching off to the war as a Union soldier and came home minus an eye as a result.
John Ames’ grandfather was gripped by a cause; a cause which to him involved the righting of the wrong of a grave and malevolent injustice to fellow human beings created in the image of Almighty God. It was a cause that so gripped him that he engaged in activity that, in reflection, horrified his son for its extremeness; that son who was to become John Ames’ father.
So the stage was set for that Ames family play in which in the second act, the son and grandson watch in horror as World War I unfolds and challenges their pacifist preferences; a pacifism rooted in John Ames’ father’s aversion to what he had witnessed of the grandfather’s involvement in Bloody Kansas and the Civil War.
It is here we come to the matter of history, memory, and connection. John Ames’ seven year old son was entering a life further and further disconnected by time from the tumultuous events leading up to and including the Civil War. He was connected to a great-grandfather who had participated in some momentous historical events. That participation was coming down to him through the filter of his grandfather and the further reflection of his father, John Ames. It would remain to be seen how that young seven year old lad growing up some hundred years after those events, would process and understand his great-grandfather’s involvement in those events.
In the area of history, and the history of the Civil War in particular, there has been in recent decades, a focus in historical studies not just on the events of history, but also a study on how, over time, those events have been understood and remembered not just in history books or Memorial Day speeches, as important as they can be, but in the popular psych of a culture over time. A case in point is how the Civil War is remembered in literature that is not so much about the events themselves, but how the memory of those past events affect the characters involved in the story taking place. It was this history, memory, and connection that made this particular story thread in “Gilead” compelling. It also hit me in a very personal way.
My Great-Grandfather was a Union veteran of the Civil War. He served three enlistments in three different Ohio regiments for varying lengths of service. He died in 1931, when his grandson, my Father, was thirteen years old.
My Dad was old enough to have had some kind of meaningful relationship with his Grandfather. I don’t know if such was the case for the simple reason I never thought to ask him about the nature of his relationship with his Civil War Grandfather. Now my father is gone and what memories he may have had are gone with him. He did not leave my siblings and I any kind of “Gilead” chronicle. Dad never spoke much about his Grandfather. But it is also true that I never really asked him what he could tell me about my Great-Grandfather. Now it is to late.
History, memory, and connection… Don’t take them for granted. This tri-fold composite has not only to do with the very public historical events, but also with the more private events of a family history.
In “Gilead” we are made privy to that relationship of John Ames to the son of his best friend, that son Jack Boughton, whose full given name is John Ames Boughton, so named by the Reverend Boughton of the Gilead Presbyterian church; this Jack Boughton who is Robinson’s portrayal of the classic prodigal son.
This is a thread of the novel that most clearly holds out the hope of redemption, however faint it might seem to be. And it is such a story that John Ames dare not keep it from his son, even though he struggles with the argument in his soul over the telling or not telling of it. In the end that soul argument is laid to rest in a revelation Jack confesses to his namesake, and John Ames with clear conscience gives Jack his blessing. The hope of redemption has not totally been lost.
So it will be that in the future the son of John Ames will read his Father’s account of Jack Boughton, and perhaps make sense of things he saw and heard back when he was too young to understand the import thereof. But when understood at that future time, young Ames will have an understanding and insight into his then deceased father’s character that will be a precious memory. Of such are history, memory, and connection.
~ The Billy Goat ~