John Ames, a fourth-generation Congregationalist minister in Gilead, Iowa, is 76 years old. He considers himself to have been richly blessed when, at an advanced age, he married a wife, much younger than himself, and then fathered a son. The year is 1956, and John Ames, a good and faithful man, is in his last days on earth. His son is only six-almost-seven years old, and John Ames, regretting that his son will grow up without him, never knowing him man-to-man, pens the words of this book. It is intended to be a family history, a series of glimpses into his own personal life's journey, and some of the discussions he would have with his son, if only he had a lifetime to do so. It is, in essence, a letter, meant to be read by his son once he becomes a man. In this letter, he tells his son:
"I'd never have believed I'd see a wife of mine doting on a child of mine. It still amazes me every time I think of it. I'm writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you've done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God's grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle. You may not remember me very well at all, and it may seem to you to be no great thing to have been the good child of an old man in a shabby little town you will no doubt leave behind. If only I had the words to tell you."The book begins meditatively . . .
"Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday. It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain. You can feel the silent and invisible life. All it needs from you is that you take care not to trample on it.". . . but, in the course of writing his epistle, John Ames is faced with the unexpected return of his godson and namesake, the prodigal son of his lifetime friend, "old Boughton", a Presbyterian preacher. At this point, the reader is swept up into John Ames' internal struggles. The godson, John "Jack" Ames Boughton, brings to John Ames an unwanted, but ultimately refining, moral challenge as the capstone to his life.
Gilead, in only 256 pages, is rich in soul-searching and wisdom. Though John Ames is a preacher, his reflections on family conflicts, racial tensions, spiritual strivings, personal failures and personal victories are far from "preachy." Instead, his words regarding God's grace and love are filled with encouragement and comfort. He also displays a warm-hearted sense of humor. For instance, regarding a magazine article that he and "old Boughton" had both read and discussed, he wrote:
"We agreed it must have been fairly widely read in both our congregations, because on one page there's a recipe for that molded salad of orange gelatin with stuffed green olives and shredded cabbage and anchovies that has dogged my ministerial life these last years, and which appears at his house whenever he so much as catches cold. There should be a law to prevent recipes for molded salad from appearing within twenty pages of any article having to do with religion."I really loved reading this book, with its passionate and moving prose. Many passages simply demanded a re-reading. In the end, I couldn't help but see similarities between John Ames, a man humble in his own human frailties, yet confident of God's redemption; and David of the Old Testament, "a man after Gods own heart."