John Ames comes from a long line of men who never quite connect with their sons. His father, a pacifist, parted ways with his radical abolitionist grandfather. His best friend and fellow preacher in the small Iowa town of Gilead, old Boughton, is estranged from his son Jack, a cad whom Ames himself distrusts but stubbornly keeps trying to forgive. Jack, whose atheism Pastor Ames never quite understands, seems fated to fill the role of Ames's surrogate child - after all, many years before, Ames's young wife died in childbirth, along with their child. But then, quite unexpectedly, Ames marries a much younger woman and finally begets a son (at age 67!).
But now Ames is 74 and dying, and his little boy will never know his graybeard father, not really. Gilead is the extended letter that the old man writes to the adult he will never know.
It's been 23 years since Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson's first novel. Gilead -- so well crafted that you find yourself rereading passages just for the sheer pleasure -- is worth the wait. It's a tender, lyrical, theological novel.
In his journal, Ames ruminates on predestination, the nature of heaven, prevenient grace, covetous-ness, the beauty and transience of creation, baptism, the anti-intellectual nature of American Protestantism, atheism and forgiveness. But Gilead, for all its theological bent, is also full of humor: It features a one-eyed kleptomaniac, a Rube Goldberg arrangement to help a single runaway slave, even a solemn attempt to baptize some cats.
Gilead presents a dusty, no-account town, full of loneliness and deprivation. Yet it's also full of an old man's noticing the little things he will soon be taking leave of: soap bubbles, the unselfconscious way people sometimes laugh, the way water swirls off a dress in the sunshine. For John Ames is determined to find a blessing even in the toughest of times. At one point, following Calvin, he imagines the world as a stage with God out in the audience -- not judging, but applauding. In the perpetual face-off between fathers and sons, God is pulling for them to reconcile.