I am on vacation this week, so this is a ‘best of’ review.
Takeaway: Progress is not always improvement.
How do you discuss a book like this? It is a beautiful story. Berry knows how to draw you into a world the world of rural 1930-2001 in a way that makes me almost miss not living it. I have not read anything by Wendell Berry before, but he has been recommended to me by many and I will read more.
Hannah Coulter is the narrator of the book. She is telling her life story from her old age and it is remembered clearly. This is a first person narrative and it never breaks from that. It is a perfect book to listen to because the single voice fits perfectly. Susan Denaker does a very good job embodying Hannah.
The story starts with Hannah as a young girl recounting the death of her mother and her early years with her father and step-mother during the depression in rural Kentucky. The story winds through WWII, raising children and living life on a farm in the 50s and 60s. Aging and having your children leave home. Changes in culture and life as the world moves away from its rural roots and the sense of ‘Membership’ in a community fundamentally changes as people lose their roots and children and parents live apart. Hannah Coulter is not a fast novel. It is slow. It takes time to tell a story that runs about 80 years. But it does not drag, it just does not hurry along.
This is what a Christian novel should be like. Berry is a theologian, poet, novelist, farmer. He is not writing Christian novels. He is a novelist that is writing great literature. This is a books about real life. It involves people that do things that people do, they love, fight, have affairs, work hard, etc. I was almost surprises how freely Hannah talks about sex, never vulgar or inappropriate, always with euphemisms. But sex was a part of her life and a part of her marriage and therefore a part of her story. I read too many Christian novels that paint pictures of people that are just not lifelike.
I also read too many Christian novels that preach. Berry never preaches through Hannah, but Hannah does pontificate as older people sometimes do. She shares about economics, thrift, community, war, relationships, environmentalism and much more. It is never preaching. It is always in context and feels like she is simply sharing some wisdom as an aside. Do not let this hold you back from reading, it is not a large part of the book, but I am struck how intellectually challenging a simple book like this can be if you allow it to be more than just the story. (Although reading it for just the story is well worth it.)
I felt like I could be one of Hannah’s grandchildren listening to the story. I have listened to my Grandmother tell stories like this. I have a group of guy friends from college. We get together every year and have talked about the fact that basically all of our parents grew up on farms. With one exception, all of our parents left the farm and and our generation only occasionally visits. We are of an age when most of our grandparents have died and while most of the families still have at least the house and a little bit of the land the connection is slipping.
Wendell Berry writes nostalgicly in the best sense of the term. He was himself born in 1934. He remembers the loses that we as a culture have felt as we have lost our connection to the land and the farm. He knows not everything is better on the farm, but he also is well aware that some things are definitely worse.
Pick up the book and listen to it. Read it to remember that something has changed, then share it.