[This is a journal in 3 sections. I didn’t start reading a new section until I’d finished writing about the one before, so I didn’t know how any of it would turn out until I got to the end.]
3 November 2014
The first third of the novel
This is unusual. There are no chapters, no action as such, only the random-seeming jottings of an old man writing to the young son who is the outcome of a marriage late in the man’s life. I say random-seeming, but a memory might only seem inconsequential until another entry many pages later, and a shape begins to emerge, in its unhurried way.
Connections. In this small town in Iowa this man knows everybody – he is the town’s pastor – and everybody knows him. But it isn’t only people who are connected in this disappeared world – we calculate early on that this is the 1950s – where people can stay put for a lifetime and church-going is the norm. From the first sentence life is strongly connected to death, and this man writes about his own impending death matter-of-factly: ‘I told you last night I may be gone sometime… to be with the Good Lord.’ In a journal entry that comes some time later he tries to explain that however glorious eternal life might be, it will not throw life on earth entirely into the shade or to stop anyone remembering it with fondness. (I’m paraphrasing.) And once he’s gone, he won’t begrudge for a moment the time he will have to wait while his loved ones enjoy their own lives….
Faith. It seems that the faith of this man – I should start calling him John Ames, third in a line of pastors of that name – is unshakeable. His brother, to the great sorrow to his father, had returned from university in Germany a confirmed atheist. Ames does not engage with this fact beyond stating it, and he does not neglect to tell how, for the rest of his life, his brother sent an annual cheque to the church to pay back the money raised for his education. The simplicity of Ames’s faith does not make him seem naïve. It makes him good. He has kept all his sermons, carefully written out and never read again by him or anyone else – he calculates he has written as much as Augustine – and only ever destroyed one. It was during the Spanish Influenza epidemic during the First World War, and in the sermon he sought solace in the idea that death had saved the soldiers in the badly hit army camp nearby from having to kill. He had realised that it would in no way have helped his congregation of grieving mothers. He tells the story, as always, matter-of-factly.
Family. Robinson has dedicated the novel to her ‘dear father and mother’ and family relationships are at the core of it. Ames is writing to his son, aged seven, hoping that he will read this journal when he is older. He describes meeting the boy’s mother when he had grown used to living alone on fried egg sandwiches, decades after the death of his first wife in childbirth. Now, the entries he writes to his son explicitly acknowledge the truth that he will not live to see him grow up, or to see his own wife grow old. We’ve learned little about her, although a few details emerge gradually. We also learn a little about his first marriage, to a woman he had known since childhood (unlike his second wife), and about the little girl who died shortly after being born, to be called Rebecca although Ames’s friend Boughton christened her Angelina because Ames was away. I’ll come back to names, like those shared by his father and grandfather. We get the beginnings of a story when the young Ames is taken by his father on a difficult journey on foot to find the grave of the grandfather. There is a miraculous-seeming alignment of sun and full moon on opposite horizons – which, in a later entry, the father reminds the son would have been seen by everybody else in Kansas. Miracles can be true, but only in the Bible.
Names. Ames refers to his dead daughter, who he sometimes imagines as the middle-aged woman she would now have been had she survived, as Rebecca – although he is pleased by the name Boughton gave her. He doesn’t refer to the names either of his son, always ‘you’, or his second wife, always ‘your mother’. He often refers to himself as a father. We know about his own father and grandfather also called John Ames, but there is another, John Ames Boughton, his friend’s first-born son named when it seemed Ames himself would never have another child. This John, a cause of disappointment despite what Ames cryptically refers to as his lack of promise (I’m paraphrasing again), is always known as Jack. There’s Edward, Ames’s much older brother – named, we learn much later in that way that is starting to feel quite comfortable, for an uncle named Edwards in honour of Jonathan Edwards the theologian. Lacey Thrush, recently dead, seems to be mentioned purely because of her extraordinary name.
Family difficulties. We don’t yet know what the problem is with Jack Boughton who, at the point I’ve reached, is about to arrive back in Gilead. Ames has referred, in a tone that seems almost surprised, to the fact that his friend’s family should have had any problems at all. But they have, and we don’t know whether they are all to do with Jack. There are three other children we know little or nothing about yet. In his own relationships with both his first and second wives there have been no difficulties that he has mentioned. Maybe there are things he hasn’t told us about yet. What he has told us about are the highly problematic father/son relationships he observed as he grew up. We learn early on that sometimes his father and grandfather, through gritted teeth, would resort to calling each other ‘Reverend’. Ames’s mother would sometimes have to remind them that this was the Sabbath. Ames’s own father is bitter when Edward, back from university, refuses the honour of saying grace. The ensuing meal, although I don’t think Ames uses the phrase, is like dust and ashes.
Father and Grandfather. That long story of the search for the grave, told in more than one section, is mysterious at first. Grandfather had left for Kansas as a very old man, and had died there. There is a mystery surrounding this move that is only just beginning to be cleared up at the point I’ve reached. Father discovered the old man’s Civil War pistol shortly after news of his death, and his determination to be rid of what he considers a hellish object forms the basis of a slightly more detailed history. Grandfather was too old to enlist as a soldier in the Civil War and had to be satisfied with becoming an army chaplain… but the name of the radical John Brown has been mentioned, and the ‘trouble in Kansas’ before that war. Father does not tell the boy what Grandfather had done with the gun, or why there is blood on the old clothes he wants to burn, but Ames tells his own son it made him feel implicated in a crime he didn’t know for sure had even happened.
Clearly, Ames is using these pages to pass something on that is often missing between fathers and sons. There was, almost literally, bad blood between his father and grandfather. There was ill feeling between his father and Edward, although it isn’t clear how much of this remained to the end. With Boughton he has conversations about the Prodigal Son, and is unable to understand why an idea that works as a parable of the love of ‘Our Lord’ seems preposterous when a real father is as forgiving of a son as Boughton seems to be. Perhaps he’ll learn when Jack comes back.
Most of what I’ve written comes under headings that are almost as random-seeming as Ames’s concerns. And I’ve hardly scratched the surface. Ames, inveterate writer that he is – and I haven’t even mentioned his fascination with words – must know that he will never be able to compress 76 years of experience into words on a page. But he does it anyway, and I’m glad. And I’m glad that Robinson is so good at turning fragments of a life, placed side-by-side, into something that hangs together. It’s not so much a patchwork quilt – Robinson would never use such a metaphor in connection with a man – as a collage. And we really do get a bigger picture.
We also get the small pictures that make it up. Anecdotes, like the ridiculous story of the Abolitionists and the horse-rider who sinks into their secret tunnel. Images of different seasons and different times of day, or the weekly round of a woman’s chores, described when Ames’s mother assiduously re-washes those bloodied shirts before ironing them and burying them. The physicality of things, including the Christian sacraments and that pistol that Ames’s ultra-pacifist father insists on breaking to pieces before throwing it in the river. There’s a patchy chronology emerging, stretching back to before the Civil War, running alongside events that take place as Ames writes. Some of these concern the boy himself, playing with the cat or with the friend his parents are thankful he has because he didn’t always have friends. Or he visits Boughton, his oldest friend, now suffering terribly from arthritis.
Ames is aware of how narrow a life he has led but, so far, he has made it seem rich enough.
The next (middle) third of the novel
The accumulation of details from entries written perhaps many days apart is creating a more rounded picture. By the time Ames fills in the back story about that ‘trouble in Kansas’ we’ve been expecting it. I began to speculate why Robinson does it like this – beyond the fact that she has the skill to bring it off – and it has to do with Ames’s tact. Only ‘The Lord’ can judge anybody, and Ames doesn’t want to show other people in a bad light… but Robinson gives him time to ruminate on things, and he decides his son needs to know the whole story. So we find out about Kansas – and, at the point I’ve reached, we’ve also found out about what Jack Boughton got up to 20 years ago. What we’ve heard so far about that is pretty horrible but, as is the way with Prodigal Sons, I’m wondering if there’s the possibility of redemption. Robinson already seems to be setting things up for such an outcome, and her Christian agenda is far more apparent in this second novel than in her first, Housekeeping, published 24 years earlier. A lot can happen in 24 years.
Grandfather. Stories about him pepper the first third of the novel – I realise I missed a lot out, like his habit of giving away anything in his son’s house that wasn’t bolted down – and reach a kind of climax shortly after that. Robinson relies on her readers having some historical knowledge of Kansas in the 1850s, particularly concerning the anti-slavery ‘free-soilers’ led by John Brown from Ohio. She uses a fictitious incident not only to explain the ambiguous feelings Father had for his own father but to encapsulate the delicate issue of the use of violence in a good cause. Grandfather lets John Brown and his men use his church for sanctuary, and agrees to do what he can after they have left to deter the government agent who is on his tail, using that pistol if necessary. All the evidence points to this being the man he shot – ‘winged’, he calls it – and it isn’t clear that he survived.
Robinson makes Father’s involvement an integral part of the story. He is only a boy at the time, but feels he must clean up the blood and horse droppings in the church. He has just finished this when the agent arrives, and the conversation reads like a scene from a play. The insinuations of the agent make him feel like a criminal and, when his father returns with those bloody shirts we’ve heard all about, the relationship is changed forever. The Eucharist is an image that runs through these pages and, somehow, the literal presence of all that blood affects Father for the rest of his life. Sometimes in later years, if his father’s sermons become too hawkish – he urges mothers to send their sons to fight on the Union side in the Civil War – he spends time with the local Quakers. Religious groups are like factions in this world, and the Quakers are known for their pacifism.
The Eucharist. It becomes symbolic of a bigger project that Ames has in these pages, to do with what fathers can pass on to their sons. Some time in his own childhood a local Baptist church burns to the ground, and the whole community helps in clearing up the mess. Black from head to toe, his father gives him a biscuit, itself covered in ash – and Ames chooses to interpret this as his father offering him communion, something not actually practised in that way in their church. Ok. I’m still trying to come to terms with the ash. The Last Supper, the origin of the Eucharist, was on the day after what is now commemorated as Ash Wednesday, and the idea of rising out of ashes runs through Ames’s thoughts at different times. He knows the ‘trustees’ of his own church want to get rid of it rather than waste money on repairs – he uses the idea of burning it down as shorthand for this – and it becomes tied into his meditation on his own mortality. He would get up on the roof himself if his heart would allow it. (The fact that his illness is heart-related allows Robinson a lot of these ambiguities.)
This seems to be how the novel works. Stories and ideas that are presented separately become connected, so that everything is part of, or symbolic of, something else. But Robinson never makes it seem forced. These are just the thoughts of an old man who wants to do the right thing by the son he will soon have to leave behind. Meanwhile, by making her narrator a thoughtful but undemonstrative Christian – his is no mechanical faith, and he has made it a part of his life’s work to read all the doubting texts his atheist brother must ever have encountered – she makes a Christian interpretation of absolutely everything seem perfectly natural. (I haven’t yet worked out whether Robinson is expecting us to question this. I referred earlier to her Christian agenda, but I might be mistaking the narrator’s world-view for her own.)
Prodigal Sons. Jack Boughton – or ‘young Boughton’, or ‘John Ames Boughton’, depending on the context – arrives at exactly the same time that Ames is narrating those important scenes involving his father and grandfather. Robinson adds another layer to the father/son theme by having Jack introduce himself to Ames’s wife and son as ‘John Ames Boughton’ and by playfully calling Ames ‘Papa’ as he used to as a young child. The boy becomes ‘little brother’, and Jack often calls round to play catch with him. There’s never any question of a blood relationship – there’s that word again – but this encounter brings back those years when Ames thought that his status as godfather was the nearest he would ever come to real fatherhood.
What is Jack up to? Just being the lovable rogue, playfully ingratiating himself? Or is it a little sinister to pretend to be a surrogate son when he’s been so bad as a real son? In fact, we don’t know how bad until some time after, when Ames decides to describe what he did when he was of college age. (As he says, he can always burn this part of the journal after he has written it if he chooses. But it will be a comfort to have written it.) Jack not only made a dirt-poor young girl pregnant; he refused ever to acknowledge the child. He did tell his father and sister Glory, who spent a lot of time and money over the next three years – as long as the child survived – trying to help the young mother. But she is like Mayella Ewing in To Kill a Mockingbird, and treats kindness with the deepest suspicion. It’s a source of great regret to Glory and her parents that they couldn’t save the child, and we wonder whether this is the only incident in Jack’s life that has caused them pain….
Ames prepares a sermon on a related theme – and is shocked to see that Jack Boughton is in church. He thinks Jack must think the sermon is directed at him, departs from the text, which is something he rarely does, and worries later that he has caused offence. Is that why Jack seems to have stopped calling at the house? We don’t know, but when he does call it is to ask to see Ames in his church office the next Sunday. Is he finally looking for redemption? He’s now a 43-year-old man (Ames calculates it from the anniversary of Rebecca/Angelina’s birth) and he seems to have left no positive impression on the world so far in his life. Perhaps it’s time he did.
What else? Ames’s second wife – who, we now learn, arrived at the church in Gilead one Pentecost when Ames was already in his late sixties. She was then something like half his age and, as we know very early on, was the one to propose marriage. But we know little about her, and I can’t even remember her name having been mentioned. It was Ames himself who baptised her, and she seems to want to learn about the things she missed out on earlier in her life. When they are first married, the women in the congregation who used to provide Ames with dishes for his main meals continue to do so, as though something about her makes them think she won’t manage. When Ames realises she is hurt by this he quietly asks them to stop, but the story lets us know that she isn’t of the same prairie stock as the women Ames is familiar with. Now, as Ames writes his journal, he mentions how much she reads, including a sentimental-sounding novel in which a woman’s love is proved to endure. She urges him to re-rea it, which he does. (Is there any possibility at all that she is the girl who became the mother of Jack’s child? A lot of things would fit…. But no. The Boughtons would recognise her, and I think Ames himself visited her.)
Chronology. From the start, the writing of the journal during one autumn in the 1950s has framed a narrative that covers a century of American and family history. At first, whatever was going on in the present seemed almost incidental while Ames, essentially, was explaining to his son the complexities of his heritage. From some time before the half-way point, however, the present begins to catch up with him. The arrival of Jack is crucial, but so are the ever more undeniable signs of Ames’s old age and the urgency of his advice to his son with regard to the parent who will still be alive. (There’s a whole theological riff, over several pages, on the placing of the sixth commandment and, in particular, the sacrosanct status of the directive to honour one’s mother.)
There things I haven’t covered, particularly to do with what it actually feels like to read and consider the words of this thoughtful and honest man. There’s a note of uncertainty creeping into what he says, even a justification for not looking forward to the next life, in the form of Christ’s prayers to God in Gethsemane that he might not have to take that terrible step. But it’s time to read on.
To the end
Jack Boughton is rarely absent from these final journal entries… which doesn’t mean that this novel is really about him. From the start, it’s about Ames’s constant hope that he has done the right thing throughout his life, and his dealings with Jack continue that theme. In the early part of the novel his biggest difficulties have been in coming to terms with elements within his own family, about the way his grandfather seemed to live more like an Old Testament prophet than a 19th Century preacher and the apparent rifts between fathers and sons. Ames does come back to some of that – he has saved something of a surprise about his own father – but the biggest crisis of the autumn weeks during which he writes this journal arises through Jack’s presence and the unexpected demands he makes on him.
He has several conversations with Jack, none of them easy. The first, in his office at the church, is full of exasperation and – what? – the kind of misunderstandings and miscues that arise from too much tact. Neither of them is fully honest with the other, and Ames finds himself irritated by little phrases of Jack’s, or his habit of coming out with the smart reply. It’s clear to the reader, and to Ames himself a few hours later, that Jack is doing his best. But they speak different languages – and, during the conversation (or in a later one) Jack states flatly that he is a confirmed non-believer. Ames thinks of him as weary, but still has no idea at the end of the first conversation why Jack came back to Gilead and what he wants, either from his own father or from Ames himself. He later sends an apologetic note, and finds himself pitying this man who, more and more, seems like a lost soul.
Meanwhile ‘old Boughton’ is struggling physically, and hardly leaves the house. As far as the Prodigal Son theme goes, Ames realises that he is acting in loco parentis. What had seemed like a triviality regarding their shared names, and Jack’s droll habit of addressing him as ‘Papa’, actually indicate the deep-rooted bond between them. However… during one of his musings Ames writes about the way that everybody in the world is entirely separate, that each one of us is like a civilisation built on the ruins of an earlier one. We might seem have the same customs as our neighbours, but that doesn’t make us a single entity. I love this metaphor, because it goes some way towards explaining the barriers: between Ames and his brother, Ames and Jack, of course – but also Ames and old Boughton. Soon there are things that Ames knows about Jack that he realises he can’t tell Jack’s own father. Maybe once he could have, but not now that Boughton is so near to death.
There are other conversations. One evening, as Ames and his wife and son sit on the porch, Jack happens by. Ames’s wife, who seems to like Jack, invites him to visit, which he does. And when Ames appears to nod off, the conversation he overhears tells him how much his wife and Jack understand about each other. There is such openness between them, bordering on affection, that Ames begins to imagine – and not in a despairing way – the two of them, and his son, getting along after he is dead. And I think that when Jack uses her name, it is the first time that we discover that she is called Lila.
And then we get the stories of two courtships that aren’t really courtships. In the first, Ames fills in the back-story of his own marriage. We already know it in general terms, but now we get the details of his immediate liking for this mysterious young new member of the congregation, of how he finds himself writing his sermons as though for her, dressing more carefully even before he has spoken to her…. Then he does speak, welcomes her, invites her to Bible classes – and is impressed by her determination to learn. She begins to do chores around his house, just as the other women do, then occasionally comes when they are not there. He asks her how he can he thank her, and she suggests marriage. He plays down any gossip this causes, either not noticing it or forgiving it so quickly it is as though it never happened. Sometimes a forgiving spirit is no bad thing.
The other relationship is one that Jack has told nobody about. He interrupts Ames during a clearing-out session in his office – Ames is doing a lot of clearing out, even contemplates burning all his old sermons – and tells him he will be leaving Gilead in a day or two. And after a few miscues, like Ames going to wash and forgetting to ask Jack to sit down, they talk. It is by far the most frank (or least cagey) of their conversations, and Jack is soon showing Ames a photograph of himself with a woman and child. She is Black, and the child is of mixed race. The story he tells Ames does not show him in a bad light at all, and is completely believable. The barriers to their happiness are his own inability to make enough money, the ‘immorality’ laws where they are trying to live in St Louis, and her father’s opposition. She, like Jack, is educated, had been a teacher until her pregnancy, and has a father who is a preacher.
Despite Jack’s expectation that Ames would be unsympathetic, in fact he feels for this man who is finally trying to do the right thing. The reader sympathises as well. Although there is no easy pay-off, we sense that Jack has not been wasting his time in speaking to Ames. But there is that problem of old Boughton – and now, Jack’s whole family. The old man is so close to death that Glory has told the other two siblings, successful and highly respectable, to come and spend time in Gilead. This is too much for Jack, and Ames pities this man who feels that his only option is to leave them to get on with it. They are bound to do a good job – and he will simply accept that he will not be there for the death of the father who loves him more than he ever realises.
So the return of the Prodigal has not led to the wished-for outcome… but Ames hasn’t finished yet. Next day he sees Jack walking to the bus stop, and joins him. And, after finally being able to convince Jack that he does not at all condemn him, he asks his permission to bless him. Which he does. It isn’t sentimental in Robinson’s presentation of it. It’s highly moving, especially when Ames explains in his journal that he will never be able to tell Boughton about it. The dying man would only feel distress that the son he had always cared most about felt unable to seek the solace and forgiveness from him that he apparently found in Ames.
It’s a strange world that Robinson creates. These thoughtful people who only want to do the best they can for others find themselves doing things they can’t talk about, or are misunderstood, or lead to exactly the wrong outcome. (Most of Jack’s story is like this.) In a conversation earlier in the novel, Jack had asked Ames the question that is an old chestnut for a preacher working in the Calvinist tradition: if God knows all, is our fate predestined? Ames answers it sensibly, suggesting that nobody is marked as ‘saved’ or not: free will means that our fates are in our own hands. (I’m paraphrasing.) Jack isn’t convinced, but the second half of the novel demonstrates – to the reader if not necessarily for Jack – that Ames believes what he says. As far as he is concerned, Jack is as redeemable as anybody else.
So it’s a redemption of sorts, but not a straightforward one – and is Ames’s as much as Jack’s. Meanwhile Ames is still worried about his own impending death, is even more worried about Boughton’s, and understands the limitations of the little world he has chosen to remain in. (Jack, who has been contemplating a move to Gilead with the woman he would be able to marry there, mentions the fire outside the Black church some years back and, when Ames blandly says that nothing like it has happened since, reminds him that there hasn’t been a Black church since. Ames dutifully reports the conversation as an anecdote against himself.) I suppose what Ames has learnt – and I always said that this novel is really all about him – is how to accept that people not brought up in the same tradition as him are nevertheless equal in the eyes of God. This is Robinson the defender of the Calvinist tradition, defiantly presenting her own faith (if that’s what it is) as being as receptive to human diversity as any other faith or philosophy. Through Ames she’s made the proposition seem entirely plausible.
I mentioned one other loose end, to do with Ames’s father. Edward had invited him and his mother, who was suffering badly with rheumatism, to go and live with him in a more southerly state for the winter. They both went – and never returned, except for two visits. And when Ames invites his father to preach a sermon he politely declines. He doesn’t do that any more, and tries to persuade Ames to move away from what is no more than a provincial backwater. So we have a variant on the Prodigal Son theme, in which the father follows the son and is perfectly reconciled. It is after this story that Ames gives us a final hymn to the beauty of these prairie states, to the proud anti-slavery heritage of their little towns, and of the people who are nothing if not generous. And, as he states somewhere late in this journal – it might be a quotation from one of his favourite theologians – generosity is beauty.