Gilead is a difficult book to define. I’m not a religious person, and so I appreciate that the current of Christianity running beneath the book never fully rises to the surface, but it’s always there. It is, after all, about a man who spent his life as a minister, and it’s undeniably spiritual, but what it celebrates is not religion or God but the human desire and definition for happiness. It doesn’t have a traditional narrative, but it doesn’t need one. In a series of letters to his son, John Ames writes down his thoughts and meditations. We’re privy to his difficulties and regrets, but ultimately, Gilead is a celebration of life.
Within that celebration, Gilead is a deep, moving reflection on family and the importance of being there for your child, in some form if being there physically is not always possible. It’s the story of John Ames’s life and his father’s and his grandfather’s. It’s a message about acceptance and unconditional love.
Gilead has a distinctly melancholy feel throughout. From the beginning, you know the narrator is going to die, but it’s conversely hopeful and optimistic. Despite everything Ames has been through, including a long period of “darkness” that he alludes to several times, he remains appreciative of the life he was given. He regrets that he’s dying because he genuinely loves life, and he loves all the simple things and moments that make life what it is.
As I mentioned, there isn’t really a defined narrative in Gilead. It reads like you would expect a man on the brink of death’s journal to read, more like a stream of consciousness than a series of events, although the arrival of his son adds more layers to his thoughts and how he records them. Ames shares everything, from simple musings to deep-rooted fears, the joys of his past and worries about his departure from his beloved world. I feel like a better person for reading them.
Bottom line: Gilead is a deep, meditative book about the human condition. It’s probably not suited to those who prefer a more action-driven plot, but it’s filled with valuable insights.