By Riley Manning/NEMS Daily Journal
Marilynne Robinson’s novel ‘Gilead’ is the book of focus for this year’s Tupelo Reads event.
Published in 2004, ‘Gilead’ won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2005, and a slew of other accolades, including the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Ambassador book award.
The book was chosen by Mayor Jack Reed Jr.’s Task Force on Education, chaired by Lisa Reed.
A variety of events will be centered around the story, including a roundtable discussion featuring pastors Tom Groome of First Presbyterian Church, David Eldridge of Calvary Baptist Church, and Brian Collier of The Orchard. The pastor’s roundtable will be held at the Lee County Library from 11:30 until 1 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 2.
“There are so many connections explored in this book, between father and son, young and old, community and citizens, pastor and congregation,” said Lisa Reed.
The story is told in the form of a fictional memoir written by the main character – John Ames, a third-generation pastor in Gilead, Iowa, in the year 1957. A widower, Ames finds new love well into his 70s and his much younger wife conceives a son, who is 6 years old at the time Ames is writing.
His age and heart complication force Ames to realize he will not be around for his son to get to know him fully. So he sets out to tell his son who he is and where he comes from, about his father and his grandfather. Ames struggles to reconcile himself with death and who his son will remember, saying, “I meant to leave you a reasonably candid testament to my better self, and it seems to me now that what you must see here is just an old man struggling with the difficulty of understanding what it is he’s struggling with.”
“Ultimately, ‘Gilead’ is the story of the bond between father and son,” said Eldridge, “all father-son relationships are messy, but beautiful.”
Ames meditates heavily on scripture and philosophy, but even more poignantly on human relationships. He describes the conflict between his pacifist father and his grandfather, a chaplain for the Union who “preached this town into war,” and took the pulpit in a bloody shirt with a pistol stuck into his belt. He reflects on his father’s painful relationship with his other son Edward, an atheist who turns his father’s own scripture against him to refute his faith.
“It’s a book about life, sin, forgiveness, brokenness, and redemption with a special note to treasure relationships,” said Groome.
As the novel progresses, Ames’s letter to his son becomes a sort of diary and even, at times, a prayer tool. The pacing and tone are not suspenseful, but reflective. The plot centers not so much on events, but on intimate descriptions and observations of the people in his life.
“Ames has chosen to stay in the wayside little town, but he doesn’t regret his life. He has a love of the place and people he has chosen to make his own,” said Rick Brooks, pastor of St. Luke United Methodist Church. Brooks, who is involved with the Tupelo Community Theatre, will perform a series of dramatic readings to accompany the novel along with the roundtable.
“Ames cares so much about people, about his community, and by the end, the story is absolutely illuminated by grace,” said Brooks.
Ames describes the joys of the world through the appreciative eyes of someone about to leave it. He savors the minuscule aspects of his life – like listening to baseball on the radio, feeling the breeze, even relishing the quirkiness of people.
He knows the church board is waiting until he dies to renovate the church, and when Ames notices how two mechanics stop telling their dirty jokes when he walks by, he writes, “I felt like telling them, I appreciate a joke as much as anybody … that’s the strangest thing about this life, about being in the ministry. People change the subject when they see you coming. And then sometimes those very same people come into your study and tell you the most remarkable things.”
“The story is of faith played out in simple ordinary life,” Eldridge said. “Most of life is not page-turning conflict, the conflict in ‘Gilead’ is subtle and simmering, much more like what life is like.”
About midway through the novel, the alienated son of Robert Boughton, Ames’s best friend and neighbor, returns to Gilead after a 20-year absence. Though he is the apple of Boughton’s eye, Ames sees him as a scoundrel, and finds himself unable to grant the young man sympathy, saying “I have never been able to warm to him, never.”
Boughton’s son befriends Ames’s son and wife, and Ames begins to suspect he will move in on them when he is gone. Ames wrestles with his jealousy and reticence as he sees the way his world will continue to spin without him.
“He is very honest with his anger and suspicion,” Brooks said. “He is a man of God, but human. It is important to acknowledge all aspects of ourselves, and temper them with faith, not push them underground.”
“You come to understand the wayward sons in ‘Gilead’ aren’t as wayward as you first think, and there are glimpses of real grace and Christian commitment outside of the normal boundaries of church and time,” he said.
Since it is told by a third-generation pastor, the text is filled with references to scripture and Christian thinkers, but the story is still accessible to any reader.
“It is not preachy or didactic,” said Brooks. “The author’s grasp of humanity is just as deep as her biblical understanding.”
Denominational lines are present in the book – Ames being a Congregationalist while Boughton is a Presbyterian – but they do not hinder any relationships.
Similarly, though the ministers discussing the book come from different denominations, they plan on celebrating their common faith instead of splitting hairs.
“From a denominational standpoint, ministry is ministry,” Groome said.