A Place in Time
© 2013 Wendell Berry
Come again to Port William (and vicinity), a community — a membership — on the banks of the river. A Place in Time collects twenty stories of the community, all of varying lengths, moving from the 1860s to 2013. The stories are often told in the first person, moving from person to person within the community as the years progress. A quotation from Jayber Crow applies with force here, as to any book in the series:”Telling a story is like reaching into a granary full of wheat and drawing out a handful. There is always more to tell than can be told.” The Port William novels, are not discrete stories by themselves, though some (Jayber Crow, Hannah Coulter) have the outline of distinction. Instead, the stories — be they a few pages or a few hundred — are part of a greater story, one that Berry describes (through his characters) as the conversation the town has about itself. Every story is a different view of the river; sometimes tales repeat from the same angle. What happens to one life is remembered in another.
Remembrance is especially important to A Place in Time, both because it takes place over a hundred and fifty years, and the characters grow through their losses. Every generation does; first our grandparents leave us, then our parents, then our peers. But some of Port William’s losses were particular tragedies, forced upon the community by war. That includes the greatest lost, Port William itself — its agricultural rhythms forever marred by the industrial-technological complex that invaded farms after World War 2. But despite the losses, the people of Port William remember what has gone on before, and it provokes them to act in ways that seem futile, because it’s the only thing they can do.
If all this seems very general to the series itself, that’s true enough. Berry here has created twenty tales of tenderness, loss, warmth, friendship, pride, weakness — all knit together. Two stories might recount the same event from different perspectives; the events of one tale will be mentioned in another. A reader who has read Port Williams books before will find it a reunion of old companions; someone new to the series might feel as though they had sat down in the middle of a conversation. But I think that’s true with any Port William book; although my introduction to the series was through Jayber Crow, and aided by a narrator who came to the town as a stranger and had to learn about it himself, even then I was aware that there was more to the town’s story, that it had been going on before Jayber arrived. For me, this was just another visit with friends.