Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry (190 pages, 2005)
Hannah Coulter is one of the more recent novels of the prolific and influential author, poet, farmer, and country-philosopher of, Kentucky: Wendell Berry. Berry has published 15 volumes of fiction over the years, and all of them center on what he loves to call “the membership of Port William”. Port William is a fictional rural township located on the western bank of the Kentucky River. Berry’s writing follows the intertwining threads of the lives of various families and town members from 1888-2008. Berry often explores the shift from family farming to agribusiness, and the diminution of small-town and rural life as people move off to the cities. These themes, however, always take a backseat to the loss and joy of his characters, and it is these characters that always take center-stage. At the end of the day, Berry’s work is always about people, and this novel is particularly about one person: Hannah Coulter.
The novel is written from the first-person perspective of Hannah as she looks back on her life as an old woman. The gentle ruminations of this elderly woman stretch from her early life (filled with difficulties) to her middle years, (a jarring mix of loss and gain in the midst of the horrors of WWII), and on to her final days (where joy mingles with sorrow, and all is resolved in hope). At the heart of Hannah’s story is the giving of thanks. As Hannah herself puts it, looking back on her life: “I was grateful because I knew, even in my fear and grief, that my life had been filled with gifts.”
Berry’s prose best speaks for itself so I won’t say any more about the themes or plot of the book. I can only say that this book changed me, and continues to change me, in ways I can barely understand. I don’t always agree with Berry, but he is always thoughtful, and thus, always thought-provoking. I’ve never walked away from Berry’s work and not felt that I was better and richer for having listened. If you’re new to Port William (or to Berry in general) this would probably be the place I’d recommend a start. In it you’ll be introduced to names and faces that will become dear to you as you find your own life caught up in the story of Port William. Berry’s novel Jayber Crow, is another wonderful introduction, but Hannah Coulter, is so brief, and so poignant, that I think I’d suggest reading it first. As a life-long fan of biographies I always love hearing of a life well-lived. Hannah’s is such a life. If I haven’t convinced you to “take up and read”, perhaps a few quotes from Hannah can do so:
“You can’t give yourself over to love for somebody without giving yourself over to suffering.”
“Living without expectations is hard but, when you can do it, good. Living without hope is harder, and that is bad. You have got to have hope, and you mustn’t shirk it. Love, after all, “hopeth all things.” But maybe you must learn, and it is hard learning, not to hope out loud, especially for other people. You must not let your hope turn into expectation.”
“I began to know my story then. Like everybody’s, it was going to be the story of living in the absence of the dead. What is the thread that holds it all together? Grief, I thought for a while. And grief is there sure enough, just about all the way through. From the time I was a girl I have never been far from it. But grief is not a force and has no power to hold. You only bear it. Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.”
“You think you will never forget any of this, you will remember it always just the way it was. But you can’t remember it the way it was. To know it, you have to be living in the presence of it right as it is happening. It can return only by surprise. Speaking of these things tells you that there are no words for them that are equal to them or that can restore them to your mind. And so you have a life that you are living only now, now and now and now, gone before you can speak of it, and you must be thankful for living day by day, moment by moment, in this presence.
But you have a life too that you remember. It stays with you. You have lived a life in the breath and pulse and living light of the present, and your memories of it, remember now, are of a different life in a different world and time. When you remember the past, you are not remembering it as it was. You are remembering it as it is. It is a vision or a dream, present with you in the present, alive with you in the only time you are alive.”
“You mustn’t wish for another life. You mustn’t want to be somebody else. What you must do is this:
Pray without ceasing.
In everything give thanks.”
I am not all the way capable of so much, but those are the right instructions.”