© 2005 Wendell Berry
This is the story of my life, that while I lived it weighed upon me and pressed against me and filled all my senses to overflowing and is now like a dream dreamed. […] This is my story, my giving of thanks. p. 5
Hannah Coulter is a coming of age story, the tale of a young woman who becomes a widow twice over, raising children through wars and hardship, strengthened by her family and extended community of Port William. Like Jayber Crow, it is less a story that is told in a straight line, and more an experience which is shared by the reader, a tale that meanders with purpose. The novel is a collection of stories and reflections, knit together by the life of Hannah into a literary quilt, one beautiful to behold and comforting to snuggle under. The prevailing themes are of love and loss, family, enduring faith (not limited to religious, but faith in life and in one another), and communion — communion with one another, with the land, and Providence.
Agrarianism is the backbone of Hannah and her kindred’s lives: it establishes the cycles of life, provides a means of self-reliance, and offers the “joy of achievement, the thrill of creative effort”. The manifest importance of the land makes itself known even in the way characters orient themselves: they do not live on this road or that, but take their directions from topography. Families live in this hollow, or on on those hills, or off that branch of the river: the people who inhabit Port William know the land as intimately as any deer or hawk. To them, their world is not limited to narrow strips running alongside lanes, a grid that people occupy as dots. The land and place of Port William are whole, connected, and rambling. But the lives of the city are not linked just by physical presence; they’re tied together too by their common experiences. Hannah and her second husband both lose loved ones in World War 2, and that shared loss is the impetus of their relationship. When they settle in, they join an informal ‘membership’ of neighbors, who despite occupying separate farms, work together as one, helping to mend one another’s fences, or gather in the harvest. They do for one another whatever “needs doin'”, and receive in the same spirit.
As said, this intensely thoughtful work combines stories and reflections. The stories are sometimes tragic, other times uproarious, often charming, and always demanding — Berry’s stories have a way of hovering off the page and floating right in front of a reader’s eyes and mind, impossible to ignore. Closing the book does not help. Although the reflections tend toward the melancholy — Hannah begins her life losing one parent, promptly loses her first husband, and will see her children be scattered to the wind by ambition — the work is, as she says, a story of giving thanks, even in the midst of trouble. This is her abiding faith — “rejoice always”. For though the years are not kind to Port William, as its way of life is paved over by asphalt and “developed” and the sons and daughters of the community are brought low in war or move away to make better lives for themselves in different places — lives that prove to be not as good as they thought — the book ends in hope.
I continue to be astonished by the beauty of Wendell Berry’s prose
The living can’t quit living because the world has turned terrible and people they love and need are killed. They can’t because they don’t. The light that shines into darkness and never goes out calls them on into life. It calls them back again into the great room. It calls them into their bodies and into the world, into whatever the world will require. It calls them into work and pleasure, goodness and beauty, and the company of other loved ones.