Most of the books we read and discuss are non-fiction of varying kinds, but this book is a novel. This proved a turn-off for two of our members, but the rest of us enjoyed it and found a lot to reflect on within it.
It is in the form of a long letter, with no chapters – only pauses (and this too was a deterrent for some), written by an aging and dying father, the Rev. John Ames, to the son of his old age. It is not morbid, however, and is full of quiet and dry humour. John is a minister in a small town in Iowa. His letter tells how he lost his first wife and child and was supported in the ensuing loneliness by his friend Boughton, a Presbyterian minister in the same town. While remaining the best of friends they enjoy deep theological arguments as Boughton is a Calvinist and believes in the salvation of the elect. In spite of this unforgiving doctrine, Boughton is a loving minister, friend and family man. Ames' reflections on theology and life gave us plenty of opportunity for theological discussion ourselves.
John is a pacifist son of a pacifist father, another minister, who disagreed with his own father (also a Rev. Ames) who fought with a gun in Kansas, in the American Civil War. The book gave new insights to us about the tensions after this war, when so many of the young men, encouraged by their minister to take up arms, were killed and he then told them from the pulpit that it was all for nothing. The book showed how the long shadow of the Civil War affected, and we thought still affects, American society. The point was made that the society John Ames portrayed was greatly polarised and this spoke to the state of our own society.
Some of us noticed a lot of description of the effects of light and the beauties of nature that John Ames was hoping to pass on to his son.
If the book has a theme, it is about the wonderful gift Boughton gave to John, which he was unable to fully accept until the end of the story, but I shall not give a spoiler.
For most of us it was a very gentle, easy book, but one which was thought-provoking and interesting. 'Gilead' is the first of a trilogy. In the second book, called 'Lila' (which we have already read), we learn more about John Ames' wife of that name, and in the third book 'Home', there is more about Boughton's children, Jack and Gloria. Together they make up a rich tapestry of stories.