Red Wheelbarrow Book Reviews
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by Marilynne Robinson
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize
"I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And 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. Because I don't imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely."
Revered John Ames is writing his letter to his son.
The story takes place between l850 and l956, the year in which the Reverend Ames begins to write this story of his life and the lives of his father and grandfather, both ministers before the Civil War, for the benefit of his seven year old son. The Rev. Ames is 77 years old and knows that the time left will be short. He has a serious heart condition and feels a need to bear witness, to recount the spiritual journey of three generations of fathers and sons, all ministers of the Church.
Gilead is a land east of the Jordan River in the Old Testament traditonally known for its source of a healing balm. But it is also known, via folktales and other associations, as a place less peaceful, a place of war and bloodshed and iniquity which calls for witnessing.
John Ames was married before but his wife and their child died long ago. Most of his life he spent alone, battling loneliness, writing sermons for every Sunday of the year, each of which he has kept, now stored in the attic. His second marriage comes late: the boy for whom he writes is seven and unaware of the history of his forebears.
There is a second story recounted by Ames of his best friend and that man's son who had brought disgrace on his family and then vanished from sight long ago, but who returns after many years as the prodigal son.
"It is worth living long enough to outlast whatever sense of grievance you may acquire. Another reason why you must be careful of your health."
Marilynne Robinson can bring humor to this serious and beautiful book, written in a slow, measured prose reminiscent of the King James version of the bible. Ames says at one point: "This is an interesting planet, it deserves all the attention you can give it." He doesn't miss much, though once he finds himself "trying to remember what birds did before there were telephone wires."
"To play catch of an evening, to smell the river, to hear the train pass"
such is the quiet tenor of life in Gilead, a small Iowa town.
"It's just a cluster of houses strung along a few roads, and a little row of brick buildings with stores in them, and a grain elevator and a water tower with Gilead written on its side, and the post office and the schools and the playing fields and the old train station, which is pretty well gone to weeds now." If this sounds idyllic, Ames has other things to say as well, he tells of a fire set at the Negro church, the plight of an ignorant unwed mother: "She and her family lived in an isolated house with a lot of mean dogs under the porch." And the crime around the prodigal son.
This is a slow, serious and beautiful book. It is not for reading on the beach. It needs to be savored, re-read, understood, treasured for its slow beauty, its moral tone.
When you have finished it, I suggest you read Turgenev's Fathers and Sons. You will experience a different consciousness, a diffrent fath, an easier church.
Postscript: I had an afterthought a few days after having finished the book and letting
it drift again through my mind. I believe the author, Marilynne Robinson, is
the Melville of this century. Her main character is in a permanent
conversation with God, his life preoccupation is with the meaning of good
and evil, his self doubt overwhelms the story. Is he a good man? Was his
life a life of virtue as he stands before death's door?that is his
question throughout. The book is concerned with the meaning of truth and
justice. The reverend Ames is the new Ahab.