Friday, February 7, 2020

'Hannah Coulter' by Wendell Berry

Hannah Coulter is Wendell Berry's seventh novel and his first to employ the voice of a woman character in its telling. Hannah, the now-elderly narrator, recounts the love she has for the land and for her community. She remembers each of her two husbands, and all places and community connections threatened by twentieth-century technologies. At risk is the whole culture of family farming, hope redeemed when her wayward and once lost grandson, Virgil, returns to his rural home place to work the farm.

I'd heard plenty of praise about Wendell Berry's pastoral novels set in the quiet American town of Port William, but it's hard to find copies in Australia. So when I came across a kindle version of Hannah Coulter on Amazon, I grabbed it.

I found it lived up to my expectations taken on board from other reviewers. It's a simple story told in flashbacks by an old lady who could easily represent any one of a million senior citizens. Not a lot happens in the way of storyline, yet there are pages of quotes any reader can take to heart from the lessons Hannah learns in the school of hard knocks, and just doing her duty.

The husband of her youth, Virgil Feltner, goes missing in action during World War 2, a matter of months before his baby is born. Hannah deals with her grief, then finds new love with another man. Nathan Coulter, a returned young veteran longing for home, is delighted to begin afresh with Hannah and her little girl, Margaret. Two boys are added to the family unit, as Hannah and Nathan work hard, watch their family grow, then try to support them through their own hard knocks, or deal with their unexpected choices. That's really all there is to it, but it's a dignified and strangely mystical read. 

The story presents many cameos of people who were probably similar to our own forebears, living the best they could before passing from this earth. There's Hannah's grandma, a hardworking lady who shaped her granddaughter's life without knowing how it would turn out. Hannah reflects about her early years in retrospect, 'It was a good enough life. After it was over I realised that it was happier than I had known.' It's possible for the perceptive reader to make similar connections about our own lives, while we're still living them.

Male authors who write in first person from female points of view aren't common, and Berry nails Hannah's womanly character. For example, there's this reflection when her daughter, Margaret, is born. '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 forth in the world by my pain and strength. That changed me.'

It's a book to honour normal, everyday, non-celebrity people. In fact, I suspect celebrities and big-names might even miss the quiet rhythms and simple pleasures in lives such as Hannah's, and ours if we take notice. Because, 'members of Port William aren't trying to get someplace. They think they are someplace.'

Berry's satisfaction in a farming lifestyle is evident, since he's known to be a man of the land and conservationist himself. But my one gripe with the story is that Nathan and Hannah are so stuck in their ways, they're skirting close to regarding their sons as failures, just because they opt not to follow their farming footsteps. Yet Matthew (or Mattie) studies IT and becomes 'CEO of an info processing company whose name is made of letters that don't spell anything' and Caleb chooses to teach agriculture and farming rather than inherit the farm and practice it. I can understand the Coulters' sense of sadness, since they couldn't relate to the tangents their boys' lives took, but there's not much of a sense they were proud of them anyway. Hey, these two were no slouches! A big CEO and a Uni lecturer! I'd be thrilled to settle for that, if these two were my sons.

As I say, I get where Nathan and Hannah were coming from, but if Mattie and Caleb were to call them backwards, narrow-minded old hicks with no idea how the world ticks, well I'd understand where they were coming from too.

Overall, I'm glad I read it, to get the reinforcement that small, forgotten actions are often hugely heroic and big-hearted. Such as Hannah deciding to forgive the stepmother who made her life miserable, and Nathan taking Virgil's daughter Margaret to his heart as his very own, and caring for her so deeply.

By the end, if you're like me you'll have jotted down a patchwork quilt of quotes Hannah has figured out, which could surely just as easily be applied to the rest of us.

'I began to trust the world again, not to give me what I wanted, for I saw that it could not be trusted to do that, but to give unforeseen goods and pleasures that I'd not thought to want.'

Here's one for homebodies. 'The house, its furnishings and surroundings, took on the appearance given it by my ways of work and my liking, and as our work shaped our workplaces, our workplaces shaped our days.' She's talking here about the satisfaction of keeping house, working in the garden and raising chickens.

I'll finish off with this tribute to her neighbours, Danny and Lyda Branch, a salt-of-the-earth type of couple with a big family, always there for the Coulters too. 'They plan and provide as much as they need and take little thought for the morrow. They aren't going places, they aren't getting ready to become anything but what they are, so their lives are not fretful and hankering.' I so want to adopt that as my philosophy, because often whenever I'm stressed and miserable, I can trace it back to some sort of ambition or dream of being different to what I am.

Overall, not an exciting read, but full of nuggets of wisdom for those who can stay awake long enough to look.



  1. Great review. The clash of cultures and of generations is an old theme but one that can still very much work in a book. Sometimes it seems like it is so hard for folks with different world views and preferences to understand one another.

    1. Hi Brian, that's so true. I can certainly see it happening between me (Gen X) and my houseful of Millennials. I think it's a theme that will always be valid 😉