Gilead takes the form of a long and rambling letter from an elderly preacher to his young son. John Ames is ailing and wants to leave a letter to his much beloved son whom he will not see become an adult. He hopes to guide his son but also to explain himself and where he has come from. It is beautifully written and touches gently on many topics – the wonder of childhood, the relationship between fathers and sons, religion and prejudice to name a few.
Despite the lack of a strong plot we all enjoyed the book – the main character is so gentle and reflective – aware of his own failings and trying hard to be fair to others and to overcome his prejudices. He is full of the insight that comes from a long life and an awareness of impending mortality. However the story is told purely from his point of view so some wondered how reliable his view of himself is.
Gilead is the small town in Iowa where the book is based. The internet suggests the etymology of the word is ‘Hill of Testimony’ which seems appropriate. It is a biblical reference from which is drawn an African-American spiritual “There is a balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole” – and that reflects the flavour of this beautifully written book.