I picked up this book and couldn’t put it down, not because the plot is suspenseful (it’s not) or the pace exhilarating (it isn’t), but because when you find something clear and cool and lovely to drink, it’s hard to stop once you start.
Such is Gilead, the fictional autobiography of John Ames, an elderly pastor from the small remote town of Gilead, Iowa. Facing his own mortality, Ames writes a series of letters to his only child, a young son, to be read when the child grows older and Ames is long gone. In them, we get a peek into the pastor’s heart and mind—and what a heart and mind it is. He does not offer his son easy answers to the hardest of life’s questions, but he is unafraid to ask them. Even more than a reverence for God, his letters show a reverence for God’s creations: nature, people, the world and our place in it. His awe at the ordinary is what gives this book its flavor, and what gives me my favorite passages. Like this one:
That mention of Feuerbach and joy reminded me of something I saw early one morning a few years ago, as I was walking up to the church. There was a young couple strolling along half a block ahead of me. The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet. On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water off her dress as if she were a little bit disgusted, but she wasn’t. It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth. I don’t know why I thought of that now, except perhaps because it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables or doing the wash. I wish I had paid more attention to it. My list of regrets may seem unusual, but who can know that they are, really. This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.
Those last two sentences. Wow.
Here’s an even better one:
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.
If you read no other fiction this year, please pick up Gilead. But only if you want an illuminating, expansive view of the the lives we live and the world in which we live them. And an honest, unflinching look at faith’s limitations and potential. And gorgeous prose that gives voice to the workings of your innermost sacred heart. And truth and beauty and wisdom. And…well, you get the point. Five stars for this one.