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A young man came to our church office, looking for food and someone to pray with him about his father, who was under hospice care in a cheap motel room. His small family was caught in the bureaucracy between the medicaid systems of two states. The hospital couldn’t keep the father and hospice needed a place to treat him. Most likely he would die in room 25 of the Rodeway Inn.
The wind swept life of this family was illustrated on the back of the son’s left calf. As he walked away, all I could read of the tattoo was “In memory of” and the years 1995-2014. The young man cared for his father among transients and memorialized a 19-year old in his nomadic flesh. He was living proof that we live in a dislocated age.
In the first sentence of Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter, Nathan tells about his grandfather:
“I picked him up in my arms and I carried him home.”
In once sentence, Berry foreshadows a tender novel in which he weaves together love, family, and place. We immediately discover four generations live in that one sentence and they all know of home. They are rooted in the same geography and connected to each other by grief, vows, love, and land.
Here are a few other quotes on family and place:
Like maybe any young woman that time, I thought marriage as promises to be kept until death, as having a house, living together, sleeping together, raising children. But Virgil’s and my marriage was going to have to be more than that. It was going to have to be a part of a place already decided for it, and part of a story begun long ago and going on. p. 33.
Speaking of her first in-laws: They let me belong to them and to their place, and I needed to belong somewhere. p. 41
Berry writes this touching story though the eyes of Hannah Coulter, who, widowed twice and reflecting on her years, tells of people woven into her life and their collective geographic lens on the world, Port William, Kentucky. It is a story of great gratitude for small things in which Berry captures the heart of a woman, a wife, a widow, and a mother. Speaking of her daughter Margaret, Hannah says,
To know that I was known by a new living being, who had not existed until she was made in my body by my desire and brought for into the world by my pain and strength – that changed me. p. 54
I read Hannah Coulter about the same time I read Marilynn Robinson’s Gilead, a wonderful novel written by a woman in a man’s voice. Both of these books demonstrate powerful emotions and an uncanny ability of the authors to speak for the opposite sex in ways that avoid stereotype or caricature.
Wendell Berry fans already know of his compact style which is eloquent in its simplicity. A person could learn good grammar and effective punctuation by reading nothing but his books. The writing is clear and carries the reader from one image, one insight, to the next with ease.
Berry’s book makes Bucket Book status for me because of the way he locates life in community and in a community. The sweetness of Hannah’s character is not pollyannaish; rather, just the opposite. It is very real, sharpened by grief and disappointment, but never hardened.
The first time I read this book I wanted to highlight each of Hannah’s insights and words of wisdom. I found, however, that I would have to highlight so many sentences and paragraphs that they would often run together. The second time through the novel I didn’t want to bother with marking points to remember. I simply wanted to enjoy the kindness of Hannah’s heart and words, as when she remembered while grieving Virgil and carrying a half-orphaned daughter who would never know her father:
Kindness kept us alive. It made us think of each other. p. 50.
Berry has written, not only a good novel, but a needed message for our age. The poor have the Rodeway Inn, while the wealthy have multiple retirement homes, none more “home” than the other. When planning for their death, they say, “Just scatter my ashes at the lake” because they have no place where family and friends might come years from now to pay respects. Unable to answer the question, “Where shall I be buried,” they will be as scattered in death as they were in life. People are uprooted from a defining place all along the economic scale. Hannah Coulter makes readers want to connect to story that is larger and longer than their own. It makes them want to belong somewhere and to help other sojourners to belong as well.
I think again about the young man with the memorial tattoo on his calf and a father dying at the Rodeway Inn. Before he left, I prayed with him for his strength and for an easy death for his father. In hindsight I should also have prayed for more kindness to come into his life. A permanent kindness that comes with regularity and with tenderness. I should have also prayed for a place and a people of which he could be a part, so that, when the time comes for his own parting, it will be from a home – and surrounded by those who know his story as a faithful son and will tell it with gladness.
It’s the time to start thinking about books for the beach or lake. Many of us enjoy a good page-turner, but we don’t want to spend our time on pure trash. Here are some authors to consider for your summer reading.
First is British author Denise Mina, with three main sets of books. I started with the Garnett Hill trilogy, then read the Paddy Meehan novels, and I am now working on the Alex Morrow series. Mina’s female heroes are real people with real foibles. Paddy does love to eat. Try to read each set in their order of publication.
These women walk in the real world of dark crime and Mina can disturb you with her images. The style is very British (which I like) and I often have to infer the meaning of her slang. Her descriptions, however, are second to none and she can capture images of real life with deep feeling.
Here is a paragraph from The Red Road, describing Rose, a 14-year old being used by a pimp:
She had been covered in blood when they found her. They’d given her a basin to wash in but no mirror. Her face was washed with watered blood. Every future furrow, every crease that would one day be, picked out in dried crimson. It was in the folds of her forehead, the laughter lines around her mouth, the prophetic tracks of sorrow around her eyes. This newborn ancient looked up at Julius with the eyes of a disappointed mother.
I think that is a powerful paragraph. Enjoy Denise Mina, but be prepared to meet the underbelly of society.
Alan Furst writes historical espionage from pre-war and WWII in Europe with different protagonists in each novel. Furst’s primary characters are average people and often unlikely heroes. Each book contains revelations into how it must have been, living in Spain, France, Poland, or the Balkans. Furst’s books are stand-alone novels and can be read in no particular order. I’ve read Dark Star, The Polish Officer, Red Gold, Dark Voyage, The Foreign Correspondent, The Spies of Warsaw, andMission to Paris.
If you want something a little more educational, try Bill Bryson, who makes science and history amusing. Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States is a fascinating look at the development of English in the USA. A Short History of Nearly Everything covers scientific discovers from the cellular level to galaxies. It is full of interesting information on a wide variety of scientific subjects and is a treasure trove of illustrative material for preacher. A Walk in the Woods is the anti- Wild. Bryson and a high school friend attempt to hike the entire Applalchian Trail. Their preparations and trials make you realize how lucky Cheryl Strayed was to hike the Pacific Crest Trail unprepared – and lived to tell about it. Bryson is as witty as he is informative. A Walk in the Woods is hilarious.
I am a little reluctant to mention Philip Kerr. I have enjoyed his Bernie Gunther novels, about a detective who gets pressed into the WWII Gestapo against his will. It’s interesting to read fictional accounts of Heydrich’s and Goebbels’ feuds. I was extremely disappointed, however, with his stand-alone novel, Prayer, and it’s anti-God message.
If you have any favorite books that you think others may enjoy, let me know.