Recently, I was ill for over four weeks. It was nothing major — just one of those wretched winter things that drags on and on. I had no energy and not much desire to do anything but lie down and drink tea.
After the first couple of weeks, though, I was able to read. It was a quiet ant not unpleasant time, being all alone in the middle of the day, huddled under a blanket and with nothing to do but read a little and then doze for an hour or two. After the first weeks of newspaper columnists and magazine articles, I started on my To Be Read bookshelf.
I approached Gilead by Marilynne Robinson with a sense of duty rather than excitement. I’d read Housekeeping and hadn’t been able to get into it. I felt the same about the first several chapters of Gilead, which is in the form of letters written by a dying, elderly Iowan preacher, John Ames, to his young son. His thoughts on life and spirituality and some family history make up the book. It’s set in Gilead in the mid-1950s. Need I mention that it is slow paced? Really good for someone who can barely keep their eyes open, you may think.
Strangely, after the first few chapters, I began to enjoy the accumulated layers of memories and thoughts — to sink into its gentleness and thoughtfulness. There is even some drama in the form of a prodigal son returning home. But in the end I didn’t need the drama; I was seduced by the measured pace of John Ames’ words. And there is a lovely melancholy wisdom in the thoughts of someone approaching death:
Remembering my youth makes me aware that I never really had enough of it, it was over before I was done with it. Whenever I think of Edward, I think of playing catch in a hot street and that wonderful weariness of the arms. I think of leaping after a high throw and that wonderful collaboration of the whole body with itself and that wonderful certainty and amazement when you know the glove is just where it should be. Oh, I will miss the world!
“Wonder at the world” is a recurring theme.
Having enjoyed Gilead so much, I immediately started on Home, Robinson’s next book. It is set in the same place and time as Gilead and describes many of the same events, though this time from the point of view of Glory, the daughter of Reverend Robert Boughton and sister of Jack, the misfit son. Reverend Boughton is the best friend of the John Ames of Gilead. The outside world intrudes in Home, more than in Gilead:
Jack must have taken his father to be in fact asleep, because when the news turned to the troubles in the South, he said, softly, “Jesus Christ.”
The old man roused himself. “What is it now?”
“Oh, sorry,” Jack said. “Sorry. It’s Tuscaloosa. A colored woman wants to go to the University of Alabama.”
“It appears they don’t want her there.”
Jack laughed. “It sure doesn’t look like it.”
His father watched for a moment and then he said, “I have nothing against the colored people. I do think they’re going to need to improve themselves, though, if they want to be accepted. I believe that is the only solution.” His look and tone were statesmanlike. He was making such an effort to be mild and conciliatory, even after Jack’s misuse of the name of the Lord, that Jack simply studied him, his hands to his mouth as if to prevent himself from speaking.
The longstanding friendship and common values held by the older Boughton and Ames contrast with the loneliness and difficulties faced by their children, who are growing up in a different world. The answers that are so clear to their parents’ generation are not at all clear to Jack and Glory. Yet even though the older generation’s grasp of their struggles is inadequate, Jack and Glory continue to turn to them for answers, for the wisdom, spirituality and essential goodness that lies at the heart of their certainties.