Reverend John Ames is seventy-six years old, and he’s been told that “his heart is failing.” So he begins to write down his memories for his seven year old son, the product of a late and very happy marriage to a much younger woman. Reverend Ames starts out writing about his father and his grandfather and about his love for this life, his memories and his regrets. However, before long, he finds that he must deal with the unfinished business of forgiveness and letting go of the past. The book has several themes:
Fathers and Sons
‘My father was a man who acted from principle, as he said himself. He acted from faithfulness to the truth as he saw it. But something in the way he went about it made him disappointing from time to time, and not just to me. I say this despite all the attention he gave to me bringing me up, for which I am profoundly in his debt, though he himself might dispute that. God rest his soul, I know for a fact I disappointed him. It is a remarkable thing to consider. We meant well by each other, too.”
Heaven, Hell and Eternity
“If you want to inform yourselves as to the nature of hell, don’t hold your hand in a candle flame, just ponder the meanest, most desolate place in your soul.”
“I can’t believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence,the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets.”
On Predestination and the Possibility that People Can Change
” . . . there are certain attributes our faith assigns to God: omniscience, omnipotence, justice and grace. We human beings have such a slight acquaintance with power and knowledge, so little conception of justice, and so slight a capacity for grace, that the workings of these great attributes together is a mystery we cannot hope to penetrate.”
“Your mother said, ‘A person can change. Everything can change.’ ”
Faith and Doubt
“I’m not saying never doubt or question. The Lord gave you a mind so that you would make honest use of it. I’m saying you must be sure that the doubts and questions are your own, not,so to speak, the mustache and walking stick happen to be the fashion of any particular moment.”
I liked the quotes. Rev. Ames has a voice that reminds me of my father-in-law, a Southern Baptist country preacher who lived in our home before he died several years ago. (Interesting aside: I never figured out what denomination Rev. Ames belonged to, just that he was not Baptist, not Presbyterian, not Lutheran, not Quaker, and not Methodist. He believed in baptizing babies, though.)
However, the story itself was what kept me turning the pages of this memoir/novel. I wanted to know the “back story.” How did Rev. Ames come to marry a woman more than thirty years younger than he was? What happened to his grandfather, an abolitionist who knew John Brown and who lost one eye in the Civil War? Why did his brother Edward go to Europe to study and come back an atheist? Can the characters in the book forgive those who disappoint them, especially can Rev. Ames forgive and extend grace to an old friend who may or may not be a repentant sinner? And how did John Ames retain his faith in God and in life itself?
Gilead has lots and lots of questions and even a few answers. I’m planning to read Ms. Robinson’s first novel, Housekeeping, published back in 1981, as soon as I can find it, and I’ll read anything else she writes. This book was one of the best I’ve read in a very long time.