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Book Review–Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry

Title:  Hannah Coulter

Author:  Wendell Berry

Publisher:  Counterpoint

Length:  190 pages

ISBN:  1593760787

Synopsis:  This is a simple story, really.  Hannah Coulter, who “married the war twice [. . .] once in ignorance, once in knowledge” (167), is an old woman who reflects on her life and her place in the Membership of Port William, Kentucky.  She grows up under the loving guidance of her grandmam. She marries into the Feltner family as a young woman. She is widowed and comes into her second life as the wife of Nathan Coulter.  She and Nathan raise their children and care for their home.  She lives long enough to see her life as “[her] story, [her] giving of thanks” (5).  There is nothing shocking, scandalous, or even suspenseful in this story.  There isn’t much action in this story.  It is the story of a woman’s interior life.  However, there is plenty of ruminate over, appreciate, and meditate upon.  It is a beautiful story.

My Thoughts:  What can I say other than that I think Wendell Berry is a genius?  I first became acquainted with Port William and its Membership when I read Jayber Crow (read my review here).  The style and tone of Hannah Coulter is very similar to that of Jayber Crow, but there are subtle differences that give Hannah a voice of her own.  I could go on and on about how wonderfully I think Wendell Berry writes, but what I really want to do is share some of my favorite passages from this book.

On the death of her first husband:

The thought that Virgil was dead didn’t come upon us suddenly, like “news.”  It just wore itself deeper and deeper into us day by day.

The difference between me and Mr. and Mrs. Feltner, as I had to see and feel even in my own grief, was that they were old and I was young.  I was filled with life, with my life and Virgil’s life, with the life of our baby, and with lives that might, in time, come to me.  But the Feltners had begun to be old.  Life had quit coming to them, and was going away [. . .]

Love held us.  Kindness held us.  We were suffering what we were living by.  (50-51)

On the homeplace that she and Nathan loved and worked together:

What you won’t see, but what I see always, is the pattern of our life here that made and kept it as you see it now, all the licks and steps and rounds of work, all the comings and goings, all the days and years.  A lifetime’s knowledge shimmers on the face of the land and in the mind of a person who knows.  The history of a place is the mind of an old man or an old woman who knows it, walking over it, and it is never fully handed on to anybody else, but has been mostly lost, generation after generation, going back and back to the first Indians.  And now the history of Nathan’s and my life here is fading away.  Whem I am gone, it too will be mostly gone.  (82)

On education:

The big idea of education, from first to last, is the idea of a better place.  Not a better place where you are, because you want it to be better and have been to school and learned to make it better, but a better place somewhere else.  In order to move up, you have got to move on.  I didn’t see this at first.  And for a while after I knew it, I pretended I didn’t.  I didn’t want it to be true.

But it was true.  After they [her children] were all gone, I was mourning over them to Nathan.  I said, “I just wanted them to have a better chance than I had.”

Nathan said, “Don’t complain about the chance you had,” in the same way exactly that he used to tell the boys, “Don’t cuss the weather.”  Sometimes you can say dreadful things without knowing it.  Nathan understood this better than I did [. . . ]

And so Nathan required me to think a thought that has stayed with me a long time and has traveled a long way.  It passed through everything I know and changed it all.  The chance you had is the life you’ve got.  You can make complaints about what people, including you, make of their lives after they have got them, and about what people make of other people’s lives, even about yoru children being gone, but you mustn’t wish for another life.  You mustn’t want to be somebody else.  What you must do is this:  “Rejoice evermore.  Pray without ceasing.  In every thing give thanks.”  I am not all the way capable of so much, but those are the right instructions.  (112-13)

 On living with hope:

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 expectations.  (146)

Oh, goodness.  I could go on and on.  Wendell Berry has, to borrow his own terminology, “turned my mind inside out like a sock” (112).  Get thee to the library and check him out!




11 Responses

  1. I read Jayber Crow several months ago and was just amazed at, as you said, Berry’s genius. I need to go back and read more Berry. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Indeed, what else is there to say about Wendell Berry? Genius.

  3. Hannah Coulter was the first Wendell Berry book that I read, and I thought then and think now that he ought to win the Pulitzer Prize —or something.

  4. As one who has read most of Berry’s books (and I did review Hannah Coulter, thanks for bring back the memories and the smiles through reading your snippets from the book. Berry is a masterful storyteller.

  5. This is the only Wendell Berry book I’ve read and I liked it a lot and look forward to reading more by him.

  6. I’ve read nothing but raves about Berry’s books. You made me even more anxious to get my hands on one of them. I think that Carol at Magistramater liked this book a lot too.

  7. I think Hannah Coulter is one of my favorite books of all time. Nathan Coulter is not the same warm and comfortable reading, but it gives the other side of Hannah’s story.

    I highly recommend you get That Distant Land, a collection of Berry short stories. You will get a sense of Port William as a whole; the back stories will enhance all the other Wendell Berry fiction. This is the book I’m getting for my brother and SIL for Christmas. They’ve read Jayber and Hannah also.

  8. I love Berry’s fiction, too! Great review. 🙂

  9. Amy,

    Was glad to see this review. We love Berry’s novels!

  10. […] Thoughts:  It seems that I have hit the jackpot these past few weeks.  After reading this, how would I even hope for another wonderful, don’t-want-it-to-end novel anytime soon?  […]

  11. […] is between Smith’s work and that of Wendell Berry.  I just couldn’t help but think of my favorite quote from Hannah Coulter (the quote about education) when I read this passage in Smith’s work.  I guess what all of […]

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