I recently finished reading Wendell Berry’s novel, Hannah Coulter. It’s part of a series of fictional stories of fictional people of a fictional town called Port William, Kentucky. But I swear I rarely encounter characters and places as real as the characters and places contained in the collection of stories that Berry has written about Port William. The books’ sense of place is especially strong, and that spoke to me very deeply when I was trying to decide if our family should put down deeper roots in Amsterdam or return to our roots in Ohio. Many years ago, my friend Bob Phillips recommended another book from the same collection — Jayber Crow — and I loved that book so much that I’m honestly surprised it took me so long to try another one. But I recently stumbled across a copy of this book, available at my local library, and I decided to give it a read.
I didn’t enjoy Hannah Coulter quite as much as I enjoyed Jayber Crow; but I’m still glad I read it.
One of the big reasons for why I like Wendell Berry’s books is because I like what I know of Wendell Berry, as a person (not personally, but from afar). I looked up Wendell Berry on Wikipedia, and I found a quote about him from Jedediah Britton-Purdy which seemed like an excellent summary, from what I’ve gathered:
Over the years, he has called himself an agrarian, a pacifist, and a Christian—albeit of an eccentric kind. He has written against all forms of violence and destruction—of land, communities, and human beings—and argued that the modern American way of life is a skein of violence. He is an anti-capitalist moralist and a writer of praise for what he admires: the quiet, mostly uncelebrated labor and affection that keep the world whole and might still redeem it. He is also an acerbic critic of what he dislikes, particularly modern individualism, and his emphasis on family and marriage and his ambivalence toward abortion mark him as an outsider to the left.
One of the things that I most appreciate about Hannah Coulter is the way that the book provides a wise perspective on the passage of time and the complexities of family relationships. I just enjoy the way that the title character talks about the people in her life. Here’s a quote from the time in the story when Hannah first became a mother:
Almost from her first day we called her “Little Margaret.” She was another gift, surely, to us all. She was a happiness that made me cry.
And here’s a quote from the time in the story when Hannah’s kids are all grown up and one moves from Kentucky to the West Coast, creating a sense of strangeness and separation:
He and his wife and their children and I are strangers. We spend two or three days trying mightily to be nice to one another, and even succeeding, but we remain strangers. We don’t know the same things. We have nothing in common to talk about. We don’t always agree about the news, and so we avoid that. I ask about their lives, but they have little confidence that I can understand their lives, and they don’t tell me much.
And here’s a quote related to Hannah’s husband, Nathan, talking about the way that she learned about his experiences in the Second World War:
You can’t give yourself over to love for somebody without giving yourself over to suffering. You can’t give yourself to love for a soldier without giving yourself to his suffering in war. It is this body of our suffering that Christ was born into, to suffer it Himself and to fill it with light, so that beyond the suffering we can imagine Easter morning and the peace of God on little earthly homelands such as Port William and the farming villages of Okinawa.
And as I mentioned previously, the one area where Hannah Coulter succeeds every bit as much as (if not perhaps more than) Jayber Crow is in the way it talks about and establishes a strong sense of place. This is almost certainly drawn from the fact that Wendell Berry himself has chosen to live and work the same farm in Kentucky for over half a century. It’s hard to describe exactly what he does or how he does it — but when I read these Port William stories, I just feel a deeper appreciation for my own place in the world. There seems to be a peace and prosperity that comes from taking the long view of a place — even if it’s very different from decade to decade — and I just want to emulate that. Here’s a quote from the book that gets at this very thing:
Most people now are looking for “a better place,” which means that a lot of them will end up in a worse one. I think this is what Nathan learned from his time in the army and the war. He saw a lot of places, and he came home. I think he gave up the idea that there is a better place somewhere else. There is no “better place” than this, not in this world. And it is by the place we’ve got, and our love for it and our keeping of it, that this world is joined to Heaven.
And here’s another quote that captures my own heart towards walking in the woods:
What I like about the woods, what is consoling, is that usually nobody is working there, unless you would say that God is.
Overall, I enjoyed reading Hannah Coulter and would recommend it unreservedly. It’s a well-crafted story, with beautifully-rendered characters in a setting that almost functions like a beautifully-rendered character, itself. If you haven’t read anything else by Wendell Berry, I might recommend you start with Jayber Crow. The stories seem to be non-sequential, so you can take them in whatever order you like. But I myself hope to start reading more Port William stories in the months and years to come.