"There is balm in Gilead,
To make the wounded whole ;
There's power enough in heaven,
To cure a sin-sick soul."
The Reverend John Ames is 77 years old and conscious that he has not much longer to live. He had married a much younger second wife, and has a six year old son, Robby. (He is actually never named in this book, but we know that this is his name from Robinson's next book, `Home'.) The book is a long letter to Robby, obviously written over many days in quite short instalments, in the hope that he will read it one day when he is grown up.
In this letter he moves, apparently randomly, backward and forward through his life, speaking about his reverend grandfather who had been a militant abolitionist during the Civil War, and about his reverend father who had been a pacifist. In between, he will describe, often with a sense of wonder, some ordinary little event that happened that day; and he meditates about his own life and, serenely (except once), about the death which cannot be far away. He is deeply moved whenever he performs a baptism (except once) or bestows communion. Profoundly religious as he is, he is self-deprecating about the innumerable sermons he has delivered from written texts which are now all stored in boxes in the attic: he feels they so often were poor efforts to convey God's message to his flock - he says several times that religion is not something that can be taught, let alone proved, but can only be lived and experienced. But if he preached anything akin to his reflections in this book on, for example, the Ten Commandments, he really has nothing to be self-deprecating about. Now from time to time he does think that, with age, he has some wise things to communicate to his son. Occasionally he wrestles with difficult theological issues like Predestination. He has a lyrical appreciation of God's world, from the beauty of a light-filled day or a moon-filled night to the uniqueness of each human face. He is gentle, kindly, tolerant and loving. (There is a particularly touching passage about him falling in love, at the age of 67, with the young woman who becomes his second wife.)
Though towards the end of the book I felt Ames' language was becoming somewhat congested and his thought processes more difficult to follow, for much the greater part of the book the writing is limpid, with recurring little turns of phrase which give it a life-like individuality, and it has a beautiful simplicity - one feels sure Ames wrote the way he spoke, so we feel we can actually hear the slow cadences of his voice.
His closest friend in the village of Gilead is another pastor, the Reverend John Broughton, a Presbyterian, who is now also very old and frail. (Ames himself is a Congregationalist; but their disagreements does not affect their friendship.) The Broughton family is the centre of Robinson's next novel, `Home', which I had read before reading `Gilead'. The two novels dovetail into each other, and we get a double perspective on certain key incidents. In `Gilead' Broughton is originally mentioned in small snippets, separated by many other incidents. We learn that he is being looked after by his daughter Glory, and that his `prodigal son' Jack (full name John Ames Broughton, named by his father in honour of his friend) has returned after many years' absence. Ames touches on his irritation with Jack, but for a long time keeps skittering away from providing the details that would account for this. He obviously feels guilty about not being able to forgive whatever it was that Jack had done, and which Ames eventually explains. Jack had had indeed done something very wrong, but what made it so difficult for Ames to forgive was that it (and much else about Jack from the very beginning) had touched on a deep wound, a sorrow, and even sinful thoughts (just thoughts, mind) of his own - and this, too, Ames acknowledges in his letter to his son. Gradually his troubling thoughts in connection with Jack become the letter's major theme. It is painful to read how this good man wrestles with himself. Eventually he understands how Jack himself is a tormented soul, and, because Ames is a good man, in the end there is at least some balm in Gilead.