Daughter of narrator John Ames and his first wife, Louisa, baby Angeline, named by Robert Boughton and baptized by him, died shortly after her birth. The narrator, who refers to her as Rebecca, the name he would have given her, had a moment in which to hold the baby. She opened her eyes and looked at him shortly before she died. Her loss, along with her mother's death in childbirth, is a grief that hounds the narrator, one to which he returns in his letter to his son.
Ten years older than the narrator and his brother, Edward Ames left Gilead as a young man to study philosophy in Germany where his own beliefs were shaped by the work of Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach (1804–1872), a materialist who challenged orthodox religion, for example attacking the Christian belief in immortality. Feuerbach believed that the idea of God is a projection of the inner nature of man. When Edward returned to the United States, he married a young woman from Indianapolis, and the couple had six children. He taught at the state college (later University of Kansas) in Lawrence until his death. For Edward, leaving Gilead was "like waking from a trance"; he lived out his years only a few hundred miles away, rarely visiting his parents or brother John in Gilead.
Reverend John Ames
Reverend John Ames, the narrator, son and grandson of Protestant ministers with the same name, turns seventy-seven in the early fall of 1956. Throughout most of 1956, he writes a journal addressed to his son. The narrator was born in 1880 in Kansas, the son of John and Martha Turner Ames, and grandson of John and Margaret Todd Ames. He has lived all but two years in Gilead, Iowa. Ames has been a widower most of his adult life, having married his childhood sweetheart, Louise, who died giving birth to their only child, Angeline, when Ames was twenty-five. The baby died shortly after birth. For the next forty-two years, the narrator lived a solitary, contemplative life as a small town minister.
When he was sixty-seven, John Ames married Lila, who shortly thereafter bore him a son. Because of his age and failing health, the narrator has no hope of seeing his son, now nearly seven years old, grow into manhood. To account for himself, Reverend Ames writes of his "own dark time," during which he got by on "books and baseball and fried-egg sandwiches." He looks at the present moments with wife and son and neighbors; his memories of his birth family and grandparents; and his future both on earth and in heaven, all through the lens of his approaching death. A person habitually aware of the world's beauty, he now sees his life with a sharp tenderness, knowing he is soon to leave it. This novel purports to be the journal John writes in his final year in the hope that his son will read it when he is an adult.
Second wife of Reverend John Ames and mother of his son, Lila is forty-one in 1956 as her husband writes his journal letter to their son. John says of his wife, he "never knew anyone … with a smaller acquaintance with religion." Lila appeared in Ames's church in May 1947 on Pentecost Sunday, when the narrator was sixty-seven and she was thirty-two. She had a difficult past, arriving in the small Iowa town with a face full of "settled, habitual sadness." She has no family. She admires the book knowledge of John Ames, who eventually baptizes her. She helps out around the parsonage, and when Reverend Ames admits not knowing how to thank her, she suggests marriage to him. She loves her husband and is devoted to their son, and she wants to improve her book learning so she can assist in the education of their son. Lila loves the western novel, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, a romantic story of a May-December marriage. She is mindful of her role as the minister's wife and tries to speak correctly and act appropriately.
Louisa Ames, childhood playmate and then teenage sweetheart and first wife of Reverend John Ames, dies in childbirth. John Ames continues to grieve for her, remembering her as a child skipping rope, her braids flopping on her shoulder, and anticipating with pleasure seeing her and baby Angeline in heaven after he dies.
Margaret Todd Ames
Margaret Ames, the narrator's paternal grandmother, does not get much attention in the novel. She is eclipsed by her husband, the narrator's eccentric grandfather. But the narrator does provide one story. After the narrator's father walked out on the grandfather's sermon, Margaret Ames, who was suffering from cancer, had her daughter carry her to the church to attend the service. In this dramatic way, she communicated her loyalty to her husband, in the face of the disrespect shown him by their son.
Martha Turner Ames
Martha Ames, the narrator's mother, is strong enough to stand between her husband and her father-in-law when they begin to fight. She is committed to the family, hard-working and prudent, and saves what she can by hiding some coins in the pantry and some in a handkerchief under her blouse. She chaffs at the grandfather's so-called charity, an "endless pillaging" of the family's goods, for the sake of giving to beggars and vagrants, yet she respects the old man for his tenacity and religious vigor....
(The entire section is 2189 words.)