The workings of the human heart…
😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
When John Ames learns he doesn’t have much longer to live, he takes up his pen to write to his young son, to tell him some of the things he would have liked to tell him in person as he grew up. Ames is old, in his 70s, and his son is the product of a late second marriage, an unexpected second blooming of love for a man who had spent most of his life alone following the death in childbirth of his first wife and their daughter. As Ames writes, it is 1956, so his personal recollections take him back to the end of the previous century, but his knowledge of his family history allows him to go back a few decades further, to the Civil War and the struggle for the abolition of slavery.
The small town of Gilead in Iowa was founded by abolitionists, its main reason for existence in those early days to help the cause, and to assist in providing safe passage for escaped slaves heading towards the free states. Ames is the third generation of pastors in his family. His grandfather was a passionate abolitionist, willing to fight the fight with guns as much as with prayer, who ‘preached his people into war’. Ames’ father, on the other hand, was a Christian pacifist, horrified in his own time at the celebration of war during WW1, at the kind of patriotic fervour that drove the young men to go off to kill or die. As Ames gradually reveals the history of these two men, it is clear that he has been influenced by both; that their divisions perhaps have led him to be more introspective and questioning of his beliefs.
I am also inclined to overuse the word ‘old’, which actually has less to do with age, as it seems to me, than it does with familiarity. It sets a thing apart as something regarded with a modest, habitual affection. Sometimes it suggests haplessness or vulnerability. I say ‘old Boughton’, I say ‘this shabby old town’, and I mean that they are very near my heart.
And it’s Ames’ beliefs that are at the heart of the book. This is a man whose faith is thoughtful and profound, based on his lifelong study of the scriptures. He’s a bit touchy when people assume he became a pastor simply because his father and grandfather were – he’s keen to point out that his vocation is personal, founded on his relationship with God and nothing else. But he has made an effort to understand what brings people to atheism, too, partly because his brother gave up his religion as a young man, and partly because Ames sees the rise of atheism in the society around him. Much of his letter to his son is an explanation of his own faith, and an encouragement to him not to be swayed by the doubts and disbelief of others.
I was struck by the way the light felt that afternoon. I have paid a good deal of attention to light, but no one could begin to do it justice. There was the feeling of a weight of light – pressing the damp out of the grass and pressing the smell of sour old sap out of the boards on the porch floor and burdening even the trees a little as a late snow would do. It was the kind of light that rests on your shoulders the way a cat lies on your lap. So familiar.
I must say I was rather put off reading this book by some reviews and comments from a few people who suggested that it’s full of Biblical references and theology that would make it hard to understand for someone without a solid grounding in the Bible. As a lifelong atheist, brought up that way, there can be few people out there with less knowledge of the Bible or of the intricacies of the beliefs of all the different Christian churches than I, so for the benefit of others I’d like to say that’s total nonsense. At every step of the way, Robinson makes crystal clear the basis of whatever aspect of faith she is discussing. The possible exception is the idea of whether predestination exists, though even there, it’s quite straightforward to understand Ames’ position on the subject – which is primarily that he doesn’t know the answer, and gets fed up with atheists using the question as some kind of weapon. Perhaps there are nuances that I missed that would be picked up by people better versed in the Bible, but certainly I had no feeling of ‘missing’ anything. It seemed to me that Ames’ unshakeable faith is based as much on his love of the world and of humanity, as on obscure theological points.
I might seem to be comparing something great and holy with a minor and ordinary thing, that is, love of God with mortal love. But I just don’t see them as separate things at all. If we can be divinely fed with a morsel and divinely blessed with a touch, then the terrible pleasure we find in a particular face can certainly instruct us in the nature of the very grandest love. I devoutly believe this to be true. I remember in those days loving God for the existence of love and being grateful to God for the existence of gratitude, right down in the depths of my misery.
In the second half of the book, a young man returns to the town, the son of Ames’ oldest friend, the Presbyterian minister Boughton. This young man is called John Ames Boughton, a well-intentioned gesture from the elder Boughton which Ames has always rather resented. In fact, he resents everything to do with this young man, who has proved to be a disappointment throughout his life. Ames’ feelings about him are mixed with his sorrow for his lost daughter and for his brother’s atheism, and Ames himself is rather confused about why he feels so antagonistic towards the younger man. Now Ames is dying, and young Boughton seems to be forming a bond with his much younger wife, Lila, and his son. The latter part of the book is a very moving account of Ames wrestling with his own feelings and trying to come to a better understanding of the young man.
There is very little plot in this book, which is normally a real no-no for me. But somehow I found Ames’ story totally absorbing and full of emotional truth – a quiet account of an ordinary man who loves his family, striving to be good in his heart, struggling to see God’s will, accepting the mystery at the heart of faith. It reminded me of the way Colm Tóibín writes – rather plain and understated, but full of beauty and empathy for human frailties. But for all the emotionalism, there’s humour in there, too – wonderfully crafted set-pieces that in their own way shed more light on all the idiosyncrasies of human nature. Yes, it’s about faith, and about racial inequality to some degree, but fundamentally it’s about humanity and the search for a redemption that can come only through a deeper understanding of the workings of the human heart. A lovely book.
Well, I can imagine him beyond the world, looking back at me with an amazement of realisation – “This is why we have lived this life!” There are a thousand, thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.
* * * * * * *
So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post…
Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.
The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.
It must be innovative and original in theme.
I’m not sure about this one – certainly the race theme has been addressed frequently. But the dealing with it through an examination of faith, and the style of telling it in the form of a long letter to the future felt innovative to me, so I’m saying – achieved.
Must be superbly written.
Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.
There’s a big part of me that would like to say yes to this, because it seems to this outsider that faith and race are the two defining aspects of what makes the US what it is. But the small town setting narrows the focus a little too much, so reluctantly I have to say – not achieved. I’m open to persuasion though…
* * * * * * *
So not The Great American Novel but, with 5 stars and 4 GAN flags, I’m delighted to declare this…
A Great American Novel.
* * * * * * *