People sometimes ask me why I enjoy blogging. There are two reasons. One is that I am a compulsive writer and after many years in which I wrote lectures, articles, books, I find this is a wonderful way of feeding my craving to get words onto the page, electronically speaking. The other, equally important, is the fantastic network of friends I have made, most of whom I have never met face to face. My regular readers and commentators mean a huge amount to me, and so does the relatively small but extremely choice circle of other bloggers who I visit regularly. One such is Ruth of Crafty People, who describes herself as a lapsed reader. Lapsed she may be, but when she does read she reads with a great deal of perceptiveness and I always enjoy her reviews. I was intrigued recently by what she had to say about Gilead and lo and behold she was kind enough to send it to me. I am so glad she did. This is without doubt one of the most remarkable novels I have read in many a long year. Set in a small town in 1950s Iowa, it is in the form of a long letter, or memoir, written by the aging minister John Ames for his young son. Ames is in his seventies and in poor health. Knowing he will not see his little boy grow up, his great desire is to leave for the child something that will give him some sense of who his father was, where he came from, and what he thought and believed. So he begins, in part at least, with what he calls the "begats" -- the story of his own father, a minister and a pacifist, and of his grandfather, a minister and a radical fighter in the Civil War. We also learn that this very late marriage, to a much younger and adored wife, was Ames' second, his first wife and childhood sweetheart having died after giving birth to a daughter who lived for only three days. Still living and in equally poor health is his other childhood friend Boughton, another minister, who has been the closest thing Ames had had to family for many years. Boughton's children have all dispersed, leaving only their sister Glory to care for the ailing father. But soon after the novel begins, his son Jack unexpectedly returns to Gilead. The black sheep of the family, Jack has been long gone, who knows where, and Ames is extremely uncomfortable when he reappears, especially as he soon wins the hearts of Ames' wife and son. Slowly slowly the reasons for his disappearance are revealed, and finally, in a heart-wrenching last section of the novel, he tells to Ames the story of his recent and tragic years. I not ashamed to tell you that cried at the pain of it, and because nothing can ever solve this impossible situation.
These stories emerge slowly because Ames is much concerned with his own inner life and how his faith in God is affected by his intensely human reactions to events. A deeply religious man, widely read in theology, he is trying, as part of his legacy, to make his son understand the grounds of his faith, which has been maintained in the face of sometimes great odds. This, really, structures the novel, which moves back and forth in time and in and out of Ames' thoughts and feelings interspersed with outward events and memories. It's a novel about the history of America's mid-West, about race prejudice, about spirituality, about fathers and sons, about love. Exquisitely written, deeply moving, greatly thought-provoking, this may not be the novel for everyone. But believe me, it is a masterpiece. Thanks, Ruth!