John Ames, an elderly pastor in the rural town of Gilead, Iowa, has a young wife, a seven-year-old son, and the unavoidable knowledge that, despite having to wait until his seventies to build the family he always wanted, he is now dying. The book plays out as an extended letter from Ames to his son, whom he knows will be too young to truly remember Ames when he is gone. The tone slides from wistful elegy, as when Ames recalls fond, cherished memories of his son and his wife (none of which his son will have much memory of), to heartbreak as he considers all the events in his son's life that Ames will never get to be a part of, and on to a bittersweet joy that rises up whenever he tries to imagine the strong, God-fearing man his son, in the capable hands of his mother, will grow up to be. There is also little plot, and the structure meanders in the manner of someone walking through the course of his own life, taking detours whenever he feels like it, visiting other memories in the midst of still others.
In this way, the reader gleans a few important elements of both Ames' life and the history of Gilead, the town which played such a profound role in shaping the lives of all the Ames' men, going back to Ames' grandfather, a firebrand abolition who led antislavery raids into Kansas during the violence there that predated the Civil War.
In brief, Ames has lived in this same small town his entire life. His congregation is also small, if loyal, and his best friend -- Reverend Boughton -- leads a nearby Baptist church. His father was a pacifist, and a far subtler, and perhaps more interesting character, than the more superficially impressive grandfather. Much of what we learn about the father, his quirks and quiet strengths, we learn through anecdotes about the grandfather.
Through this back story, we also get a glimpse of Ames' intense loneliness he carried through much of his life, and of the deep sorrow he still harbored after the death of his first wife, many years earlier, and their infant who died soon after. This sorrow, despite the steady consolations of his religion, was only truly alleviated once he met Lila, his current wife. A stubborn, uneducated woman, who was just as lonely and bruised by life as Ames himself was, they bonded despite their vast age difference, and Lila soon proposed to him. Their son was born the following year.
The closest thing to a plot appears in the form of Reverend Boughton's son Jack returning to Gilead after years of exile, only partly self-imposed. Jack's return brings up all kinds of conflicting issues for Ames. For one, since Ames the reasons for his exile -- a scandalous, exploitative relationship with a young girl from the poor side of town, which resulted in a pregnancy Jack did not recognize -- Ames feels a deep suspicion for why he would return now, after all these years. Ames also feels jealousy watching Jack bond with Ames' wife, Lila, and his son. Jack is closer in age to Lila, and Ames worries that, compared to Jack, Ames looks like a foolish old man, and that they will all forget about him when he's passed on.
Ultimately, though, the book is about Ames coming to terms with his life and looming death. And it's through Jack, whom Ames is finally able to accept as a man just as broken as Ames himself once was, just as desperate for the meaning and stability that Ames found with his wife and son, however short a time he got to spend with them, that this philosophical and theological undercurrent finds its final anchor.
Best part of story, including ending:
Robinson is a phenomenally nuanced writer. In lesser hands, this book -- a dying man writes an extended letter to his young son -- could have been an overly sentimental farce. In fact, lesser hands have attempted this before. And the results speak for themselves.
Best scene in story:
There are countless incredible scenes and "theological moments" scattered throughout, but just for its sheer power, for the capacity to create such power without any readerly preparation or momentum whatsoever, I would have to go with the very first page of the book. In a matter of three or four paragraphs, we meet Ames, we see his love for his curiously unique wife and son, and we learn that he is going to die soon. Takes a pro to make that work.
Opinion about the main character:
The gentle, quiet brilliance of John Ames comes through again and again. You never pity him. Pity is a secondhand emotion. Robinson, through Ames, always makes you feel precisely what he's going through.