Set in 1956 in the small town of Gilead, Iowa, Gilead takes the form of a letter written by the minister John Ames to his young son. In his seventies and dying of heart disease, Ames reflects on his forefathers, looking back roughly a hundred years, beginning with the founder of the three generations of Ames preachers who have presided over the Congregationalist church in Gilead. Guided by his religious convictions, the first John Ames rode in Kansas with the radical abolitionist John Brown, lost an eye during the Civil War, and remained militant to the end of his days. The ferocious moral certainty of the first John Ames stayed firm even in the face of the tragic bloodshed of the Civil War; in his later years he was not above thievery or virtual personal bankruptcy in his mission to provide for the poor and the vulnerable. Refusing to attend his own church because of his son’s pacifist sermons, he relocated to Kansas and died alone.
The tension between father and son is replicated in the next generation when the second John Ames must face the defection of his son Edward, who identifies himself as a modern atheist; he persuades his father to retire to Florida and to adopt his views to a degree. It is only the narrator, the second John Ames’s other son, who has remained in Gilead as the next Ames pastor. Like his father, he is a pacifist, his convictions reinforced by the influenza epidemic during World War I, which he felt was a judgment on America’s participation in the war; for Ames, the battlefields of the twentieth century represent a modern world hostile to Christianity. Neither the eccentricity nor the militancy of the first Ames minister is passed on to the succeeding generations. The third John Ames, an Eisenhower Republican, admits that he and his father failed to carry on his grandfather’s activism and that as a result he cannot help but feel a little diminished in comparison to the old firebrand abolitionist.
A widower for some years, Ames III has remarried late in life to a much younger woman named Lila, to whom life has not been kind but who is now devoted to her invalid husband and to their young son. Grateful for the happy turn his...
(The entire section is 894 words.)