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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.
Great review of HANNAH COULTER. I loved that book. I just finished A WORLD LOST By Wendell Berry. It centers around a young boy whose uncle was murdered. Joel, you might like to read it, and I’d be glad to let you borrow my copy if you’d like. Here is a brief quote: “The world I knew had changed into a world that I knew only in part; perhaps I understood that I would not be able ever again to think of it as a known world. My awareness of my loss must have been beyond summary. It must have been exactly commensurate with what I had lost, and what I had lost was Uncle Andrew as I had known him, my life with Uncle Andrew. I had lost what I remembered.” (p. 27) The book has a lot to say about how people deal with grief.
You loaned me this book long ago; in 2010 it was #11 on a top 15 list I put on Facebook. Enjoyed, and remembered. Thanks.