On Life and Death in Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson


“There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.”

My book club wasn’t ready for this one. It was our third death-centered book in a row, following on the heels of The End of Your Life Book Club, Will Schwalbe’s account of his transformative reading relationship with his mother, while she is being treated for and dying of pancreatic cancer, and John Green’s Fault in Our Stars, a story of true love between teenagers who also happen to be dying of cancer. So, when we got to Gilead, with its framework of a dying minister writing a letter to the 6-year-old son he’ll never see grow up, many of us wanted to put it down.

Who can blame us? Though Gilead is about a whole host of subjects—forgiveness, the joy of everyday moments, relationships between fathers and sons, religion and theology—it’s hard to get past the main character narrating from his deathbed, especially for a group that’s met for two consecutive months to chat about death.

However, as I reread Marilynne Robinson’s stunningly beautiful novel, I decided I’d be hard-pressed to find a book that’s more about life—with a capital “L”—than this one. In fact, Reverend John Ames’s letter celebrates life so much that he feels a continual sort of ministerial guilt over the potential letdown he might experience in making the transition to the great hereafter. As a man of the cloth, he’s preached for decades on the promise of eternal life, he’s comforted grieving families with the idea that their loved ones have made it to heaven, and he’s counseled Christians on the theology of salvation. Yet, looking back over his 76 years on this earth, he finds this life to be quite wonderful.

He tries to focus on heaven, as a proper minister living out his last days should. But the wonders of his everyday life just keep calling: “This morning I have been trying to think about heaven, but without much success. . . . Each morning I’m like Adam waking up in Eden, amazed at the cleverness of my hands and at the brilliance pouring into my mind through my eyes—old hands, old eyes, old mind, a very diminished Adam altogether, and still it is just remarkable.”

He finds much to appreciate: the small town that sheltered him for all of his adult life; a deep and abiding friendship with his fellow minister, Boughton; parishioners who cared for him in the darkest periods of his history; the providential turn of events that brought him the young wife and son he never thought he’d have.

But his is no sugarcoated view of reality. He’s known hardship and hunger. He’s watched war ravage the country and the black population of small Midwest towns like his leave to look for a more hospitable home. He’s felt the pain of a strained relationship with his father, as well as that of his father with his grandfather’s. He’s experienced the sin of deeply coveting the happiness of other men blessed with the love of a wife and kids.

John Ames’s love of life has been well tested, having lost a wife and child as a young man, and getting nothing but pain from the relationship with his godson, John Ames “Jack” Boughton. And, in the course of this long letter, when Jack returns to Gilead, the Reverend’s love—for life, and for a fellow human being—is tested mightily again.

But, as he says in his elderly wisdom, “misfortune is not only misfortune,” just as “good fortune is not only good fortune.” Life has its ups and downs, in other words. And perhaps the ups are all the more precious for the challenges of the downs. We value life’s small blessings because, in this life, blessings prove so rare. That seems to be the gist of John Ames’s recurrent memory of his father feeding him, communion-style, as they helped clean up a fire at another local church. It’s a brief moment of fatherly love among the ruins.

If there’s a tear to be shed over this book, it will come not from Reverend Ames’s impending death, but rather Jack’s sad departure from Gilead and his family. As he prepares to go, his godfather blesses him, but there seems to be no hope for Jack’s happiness, since he has lost in one fell swoop both the family of his birth and the family he might have had with his wife and child. He will get a second chance in Robinson’s sequel of sorts, Home, so we can be thankful for that.

So, here, we are not meant to dwell on the fate of Jack. Instead, we’re supposed to pay attention to the trajectory of John’s life, which has led him through the wilderness and out again, to a place of happiness and peace. His long letter reads more like a prayer, and one that gradually moves away from supplication toward a spirit of thankfulness: “Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see.”

Wiling to see, John Ames envisions his ordinary existence transfigured into something glorious. And, if we are willing to see, we will find something glorious in these pages, too: there’s a lot of life within this lovely novel about dying.

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