By Wendell Berry
Shoemaker & Hoard, 190 pp., $14.95
Wendell Berry, a modern day renaissance man, delivers a 70-year tour de force of life in a rural farming community as experienced via a widow named Hannah Coulter. Mr. Berry, author, poet, essayist, University instructor, recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, environmental activist, cultural critic and farmer, created the rural town of Port William in 1960. It’s the center of the majority of his fiction writing and includes 44 short stories, numerous poems, and books. Thus far, the town narrative, of which Hannah Coulter is the 7th of 8 novels, spans from 1864-2008. This unique story covers a larger swath of time, from 1930 to 2001, and it’s told from a woman’s perspective.
Hannah begins with her poor childhood and upbringing. Her mother died and her father’s second wife brought with her two boys from whom her Grandmother protected her. Grandmam realized they’d not focus on Hannah so she raised her, taught her how to work, and then helped her leave. In the city, Hannah works and ultimately meets and marries a farmer from Port William, who, like almost all young men from town, fights in World War II. Missing in action, while Hannah bore their child, he never returns. She remains with his family, works on their farm and silently mourns with the community the multiple town losses and the now distant veterans. Nathan Coulter returns home from the Battle of Okinawa, meets Hannah, and they marry. They buy a rundown farm and, over the next five plus decades, work the land that shapes their lives.
On the surface it’s a slow memoir-like novel until Hannah’s conversational cadence and the manner in which she describes people, places and events captures you. Surprising and beautiful, the topics and her thankfulness mature with her chronological memories.
She offers sophisticated, insightful reflections about topics including married love; community, specifically a concept called “The Membership” and employment vs. self-employment supported with community assistance; farming – changes, the role of machines, the role of land, modern day techniques with unintended consequences; child rearing and the role of education when pursuing the good life; World War II and civilian costs; as well as, technology and its impact.
The interwoven and well-paced story allows for breath and depth of topics. A personal favorite, the of idea of “live right on,” meaning you live right through the sorrowful, the suffering and the hard times, resonated with me. Given the careful crafting, though, the Okinawa section appeared sparse. It’s limited to one chapter and the first two pages of the novel, so, while it frames her narrative and adds insight into Nathan, it felt a bit underdeveloped.
Hannah Coulter offers a unique glimpse into rural America. It points out changes and gently admonishes the past, all the while encouraging the future with thankfulness, hope and charity found in human resilience.