The Reverend John Ames has lived in the small town of Gilead in Iowa nearly all his life. His father was a preacher and both grandfathers. Born in 1880 It’s now 1956 and he’s an elderly man knowing he doesn’t have long to live. So he begins to write a letter to his seven year old son ‘to tell you things I would have told you if you had grown up with me, things I believe it becomes me as a father to teach you.’
In a voice that is calm and authoritative the Reverend Ames tells his son about his life and beliefs about his friends and family and perhaps most beautiful of all, he describes their present life, the everyday happenings in their little family of three.
This is a book about fathers and sons really. As he writes to his future grown up son, he tells him about the relationship he had with his own father and about the relationship that he had with his father. His grandfather, a staunch abolitionist, moved the family to Kansas in the 1830’s ‘to help Free Soilers establish the right to vote’ while his father, a pacifist, is greatly disturbed by his fathers’ willingness to fight and hold a gun for his beliefs. There’s a lovely passage where our current John Ames recalls a trip he took with his father in 1892, when he was 12 years old. They go back to Kansas to try and find the grave of his grandfather, travelling by train and wagon but mostly on foot. The memories of the people they meet, the food they’re given – mostly cornmeal mush or navy beans, and there camaraderie was my favourite part of the book.
Then there’s his brother Edward who 10 years older than him, leaves home for Europe, discovers Feuerbach and comes back an atheist. But our John Ames is such a wise soul that despite the upset this book causes between father and son and it being ‘forbidden’ reading he reads it anyway under the covers and finds it ‘marvellous on the subject of joy’! Which makes me think I should read ‘The Essence of Christianity’.
And there’s John Ames Boughton, Jack, his namesake and godson who reappears like the prodigal son. He’s been away for so long, our John Ames can hardly remember him but now he keeps turning up, and is troubling. He befriends and spends too much time with his wife and son, who adores him. What’s his story? Where has he been and What’s his game?
He describes the loneliness of being a young widow, he delights in the natural world and wonders about creation and existence. He makes toasted cheese sandwiches and scrambled eggs while his wife is lost in her library book ‘The Trail of the Lonesome Pine’, and he dances to a waltz he hears on the radio. The stories and memories that he chooses to record for his son, to give him a flavour of the man he is, are wise and honest as well as tender and touching. But the Reverend John Ames is a theologian and he’s kept every sermon (bar one) that he has ever preached., He quotes from them liberally and refers to them often and this did make me feel as fidgety as a child in church and stopped me from being completely absorbed. But having said that, I see this is the first in the Gilead series and it certainly hasn’t put me off reading the next three.
‘I’d never have believed I’d see a wife of mine doting on a child of mine. It still amazes me every time I think of it. I’m writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you’ve done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle. You may not remember me very well at all, and it may seem to you to be no great thing to have been the good child of an old man in a shabby little town you will no doubt leave behind. If only I had the words to tell you.’