“Hannah Coulter: A Novel” by Wendell Berry
Wendell Berry is one of the few authors who is worth reading simply for the pure joy of hearing the words. Something about his writing style makes the words seem to wash right over me. Whether poetry or prose (a distinction not always easily made in Berry’s writing), fiction or non, the effect is the same.
Hannah Coulter is certainly not my typical pleasure-reading material. There is not much of a plot, and no real “action” scenes. There is no prototypical villain, though life in the fictional town of Port William seems always to be warring against the twin enemies of Time and Death. Instead, this is a poignant account of the simple heroism of a life well-lived.
The novel is told from the perspective of a 70’s-something woman in the twilight of her life, as she reflects on her past, present, and future. Through Hannah’s eyes, we catch a glimpse of rural life as experienced by “the greatest generation”. We benefit from the prudence and wisdom gained over a lifetime that had experienced so much joy and pain, as she loved and lost two husbands (one of whom went missing in the European theater of the second World War), and became an integral part of a tight-knit community.
Most of all, this is a story of love; a true romance novel. The love of which Hannah Coulter speaks is not the “romance” that is so typical of the stories of our day, but a real, true, and lasting love in the fullest sense of the word. It is a lifetime of love, shared most intimately with a spouse, but encompassing the shared experiences of a multitude of people, and pouring over into every aspect of life. It is a love for which I believe all people long, but few truly find in this life.
The tempo of the book is that of the life it portrays: slow, but with a purpose and a definite direction. I was riveted from beginning to end.
This novel was of particular interest to me because Hannah was born within a few years of both of my grandmothers, and in the same part of the state of Kentucky. Her story could easily have been their story, or the story of so many others from their generation. It is a reminder of the importance of learning and passing on the stories of those who have come before us. In this way, they (and the wisdom they possess) are always with us, just as the people in Port William remain with Hannah Coulter. I was struck by this thought even more deeply this week at my grandmother’s funeral. I am so thankful to have had the chance to get to know her, and to have many of her stories to pass on to my children and grandchildren. I read this book before she died, but she (and my other grandmother) were both on my mind the entire time. Hearing Hannah’s story somehow made their stories seem more real. For perhaps the first time, I was able to imagine them as young women, as the world in which they lived came alive through Berry’s beautiful writing.
I sincerely hope that many others will read this book, along with Jayber Crow and others from Berry’s stories of life in Port William. We could all use a break from the breakneck pace of modern life, and there are few ways better to do so than this book. Buy it here.