Gilead goats, image taken from

Though I've wandered around Jordan with a group of friends many years ago, I don't think we strayed to Mount Gilead (goats, however, we saw plenty of!). And I can't boast about my knowledge of the bible. So instead, the first time I came across the word "Gilead" was in a Cowboy Junkies song Seven Years, a dramatic sort of Western track about a father and his estranged son.
My dreams are now filled with Gilead Trees
And other sights that I've never seen
Perhaps owing to it being the place King David fled to during the coup by his son Absalom, Gilead has become some kind of symbolic place of both refuge and regret, calm and storm.

2 weekends ago, I picked up Marilynne Robinson's second novel Gilead.
I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I'm old, and you said, I don't think you're old.
I don't usually buy a book if I've not heard of the writer before, but this first line got me hooked.

Set in an Iowa small town, the book's one long letter from an old dying preacher John Ames to his young son. It is a letter of regret - because he has left nothing materially to provide for his young wife and boy. But it is also a letter of immense calm and resolution - John Ames has lived what most people would understand as a good life. And so has his father and his grandfather, who are both also preachers. The passages on Grandfather Ames and the old man's fierce material generosity are the best.

At the beginning of the novel, John Ames describes a significant childhood experience trekking to Kansas with his father in search of his Grandfather's grave. The old man had disappeared one day after a disagreement with his son on the subject of America's war-like disposition, the latter a pacifist and the former a Civil War veteran. And we know for sure that this is a novel about fathers and sons - the strong, often irrational loyalty and love, and the inevitable betrayals.

While John Ames' relationship with his young son lacks the same sort of dramatic tension found in the other father-son stories, he makes for a good narrator precisely because his own story seems at first so dull and pale in comparison. But this allows for a gentle humour, and a different kind of pathos - a father who cannot be.

Hmmm, I guess with a premise like this the writing could have become something really too precious. Maybe it is, but it seems just right to me now amidst all the unhappiness with Pa J's family of 5 sons and 1 daughter.

In the past month, J and I have seen "children" driven by selfishness, distrust and irresponsibility. We pity the mother who has given all her life, but has inadvertantly spoilt her "children" (the inverted commas because most are already parents themselves in their 40s and 50s). We have learnt that "the democratic process" is only as good as the people who participate in it are - and can become the convenient ground on which responsibility is disavowed, and inaction and excuses take the guise of "discussion" and "engagement".

But in Gilead, I think the lesson is also about forgiveness...

New Addition to the House of Tham
image by J

...and with that, new beginnings! So J and I are real glad that, 2 days ago, someone new joined the family! And my entrepreneurial brother E now also bears the name of father.

p/s read the review of Gilead in NYT?


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