by Wendell Berry
–Review by Teri Hyrkas
True confession: Hannah Coulter is the first book by Wendell Berry that I have read. I blush to admit that Berry’s books about the fabled town of Port William, Kentucky, have been on my “To Be Read” list for at least twenty years. Happily, long time friend and super-reader Tracey Finck proposed that we make Hannah Coulter (2004, Counterpoint), the choice for our initial book discussion of 2018. Because of Tracey’s suggestion, Hannah Coulter was the guide into Berry’s community of Port William residents — and what an extraordinary membership it is.
Hannah Coulter is written as a memoir with the Port William community set as the rich and colorful source of Hannah’s memories. As the story begins, we learn that Hannah was born in 1922, some distance outside of Port William on a small farm owned by Hannah’s grandmother. When Hannah’s mother died and her father remarried, Hannah’s stepmother, Ivy, resented Hannah’s presence in their home. It was Hannah’s grandmother who then stepped in to provide the love and direction Hannah needed to flourish. In the following paragraph, Hannah describes her grandmother’s profound influence on her life: “…She made the connections that made my life, as you will see. If it hadn’t been for her, what would my life have been? I don’t know. I know it surely would have been different. And it is only by looking back, as an old woman myself, like her a widow and a grandmother, that I can see how much she loved me and can pay her out of my heart the love I owe her.” It is through her grandmother’s friendships that Hannah eventually moves to Port William and begins her life there.
Berry’s novel is not an action-driven story. The plot, such as it is, moves forward through Hannah’s recollections of various individuals in the population — the membership — of Port William. One striking personality Hannah comes to know is Burley Coulter. Burley is a contrary fellow with many shortcomings, but he is a master storyteller and jokester and it is through Burley that author Wendell Berry adds a wealth of down home humor and wisdom to Hannah Coulter. In an ironic twist, Berry makes non-conformist, renegade Burley the author of the term that describes the strong bond between Port William inhabitants. In a comic pseudo-sermon proclamation, Burley Coulter delivers his definition of “the membership”: “Oh, yes, brothers and sisters, we are members of one another. The difference, beloved, isn’t in who is and who’s not, but in who knows it and who don’t. Oh, my friends, there ain’t no non-members, living nor dead nor yet to come. Do you know it? Or do you don’t? A man is a member of a woman and a worm. A woman is a member of a man and a mole. Oh, beloved, it’s all one piece of work.”
Hannah’s inclusion in the community does not mean her days are free of trouble or pain, but they are remarkably free of pettiness. It is the ability to forgive and move on that is largely responsible for such a charitable outlook in Port William. Hannah realizes this when she unexpectedly meets-up with her hard-edged stepmother, Ivy, and finds she cannot hate her as she did when a child: “I didn’t understand exactly what had happened until the thought of her woke me up in the middle of that night, and I was saying to myself, ‘You have forgiven her.’ I had. My old hatred and contempt and fear, that I had kept so carefully so long, were gone, and I was free.”
The land is as much a character in Hannah Coulter as the people are. The farmland receives all the care and protection given to any human in Port William. Love of farm and family are at the center of Hannah’s life. It is Hannah’s conviction that if one engages fully in farming, one will enjoy the benefits of unending beauty and reap a variety of invaluable gifts from the land. Yet it is also clear that the non-arable spaces, the hills, streams, and glades of Port William, are also intertwined with the community and help to sustain its well-being. In the section that follows, Hannah describes her favorite woodland walk: “My path through the woods would hardly show itself to anybody but me, but I use it often enough to keep it followable. It goes around the hillside where it folds into the crease of the steep little stream called Shade Branch…. Sometimes Shade Branch gets wild and strong enough to move big rocks. You see what it does, and you know that while the water is running down it is cutting back. It is wearing into the slope, making the hill low, and somewhere exalting a valley….”
Be advised, friend, that when you read Hannah Coulter, the river, the land and the membership of Port William may wear a path into your very own heart as you become acquainted with unforgettable characters who are exceptionally wise, funny, flawed, and maybe even a little exalted.
Many thanks to Tracey Finck for moving Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter to the top of my TBR stack and for sharing her wonderful insights about the book over coffee. Perhaps you can do as Tracey did — call a friend and suggest you read and discuss this excellent novel soon. I hope you will.