Existence is the holy thing: Book review of “Gilead”, 2005 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction

This book kept popping up on my radar, so I knew that it had to be good. The last push was an introduction to a fellow bookworm at a friend’s wedding down in Utah. Gilead is a modern classic. What makes it so timeless? The book captures the human experience. It doesn’t provide a pre-formed opinion, but leaves the reader to come to his own conclusions. It captures the complexity of the human condition.

A couple warnings to the reader. The style of the book may come off as intimidating initially. There are absolutely no chapters breaking the book up into sections. It falls into a genre of literature I would call a last lecture: the narrator is writing some thoughts to a loved one in full awareness that he is about to die. There is no linear plotline, and the author is skipping back and forth between recounting his childhood, stories from his father and his grandfather, and the present. Vital elements in the story aren’t revealed all at once, and the reader must in many instances reconstruct the significance of current and past scenes that the narrator describes.

It would be helpful to describe the basic setting, and, without revealing significant plot details, to give a brief overview of the dramatis personae. The book itself takes place in the 1950s written by a reverend by the name of John Ames. He lives in a small town in Iowa by the name of Gilead. John Ames is writing to his seven-year-old son with the intent of sharing with him thoughts and life lessons that he would have wanted to share with him when he was older, but won’t have the opportunity to see him grow up. John spends a significant amount of the book describing inter-generational tensions involving his father and grandfather, spanning on the whole nearly a century of history. The book spans three major wars, all mentioned in the book (Civil War, WWI, and WWII).

If I were to try to identify a theme, I would sum it up with these words of John Ames to his son: Existence is the essential thing and the holy thing. If the Lord chooses to make nothing of our transgressions, then they are nothing. Or whatever reality they have is trivial and conditional beside the exquisite primary fact of existence. Perhaps to some this may seem like some kind of liberal agenda, some watering down of doctrine, some explaining away of divine justice.

But it isn’t. It is the most Christian thing there is. Christianity acknowledges that existence itself, being here, is holy. It recalled to mind the closing words of the young Jesus in the film The Young Messiah I watched a few weeks ago. The youth Jesus remarks, something along the lines of I don’t think I am here to work miracles, or to call down floods or storms. I think I am here just to experience it all, to know what it is like to live.

There are characters that have done some horrid things. The narrator himself acknowledges that he struggles not passing judgment on this individual. The audience doesn’t even know at the time what exactly it is, only that he has a history. The man asks Reverend Ames, So, Reverend, I would like to hear your views on the doctrine of predestination.

John Ames responds, That’s a complicated issue.

Let me simplify it, the asker responds. Do you think some people are intentionally and irretrievably consigned to perdition?

Regardless of your views on predestination, the reader, along with the narrator, might be tempted to judge. But as you learn the beautiful stories of these individuals, perhaps your heart is softened. Near the end, the narrator questions whether he should have shared such personal information with his son. He explains his reasoning:

You might wonder about my pastoral discretion, writing this all out. Well, on one hand it is the way I have of considering things. On the other hand, he is a man about whom you may never hear one good word, and I just don’t know another way to let you see the beauty there is in him.

How do you measure the worth of a man? In what he builds or buys? You must learn to look through heaven’s eyes. That is the challenge in this book. And in a world where we divide ourselves by differences in politics, in religion, in opinions, this book challenges us to see the beauty in each life.

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This time, I’m going to spare you direct quotes, and reference you to my quotes on Goodreads here.

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