Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Book Recommendation: Hannah Coulter

I was grateful because I knew, even in my fear and grief, that my life had been filled with gifts.
Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry

For the past 10 days I have found myself immersed in the community of the Port William Membership in the novel Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry. When I closed the book I felt a sense of loss as I bid good-bye to the men, women and children who make up this fictional community. Hannah Coulter is the seventh book in the Port William Membership series, and the second one I have read (Jayber Crow was the first). It’s the only one where Berry tells the story from a woman’s point of view, and his prose is eloquent and thoughtful.

At the start of the book, we meet Hannah in her early 80’s as she begins to tell the story of her long life. For many it would seem a fairly ordinary life, but of course, there’s much grace to be found in ordinary lives. Twice widowed (once as a young woman and then in her late 70’s), the themes of loss and grief are woven throughout the book.  For me, these resonated deeply, and my brand new book is highlighted throughout. Here’s a passage: 

“I need to tell about my people in their grief. I don’t think grief is something they get over or get away from. In a little community like this it is around us and in us all the time, and we know it. We know that every night, war or no war, there are people lying awake grieving, and every morning there are people waking up to absences that will never be filled.” P. 61

There’s a cast of characters and their stories are laced together creating the tapestry known as Port William. For most people in this community, farming is their livelihood, and you feel Hannah’s pain as she talks about how the young people leave to pursue other things (trading their "membership" in Port William for employment elsewhere).  Here are her musings on this:

"One of her attractions of moving away into the life of employment, I think, is being disconnected and free, unbothered by membership. It is a life of beginnings without memories, but it is a life too that ends without being remembered. The life of membership with all its cumbers is traded away for the life of employment that makes itself free by forgetting you clean as a whistle when you are not of any more use." p 133

Port William is community in the best sense of the word, and it certainly gives one pause to think about the role of one's own community. In Port William they are there for each other in sickness and in health, in good and bad times. They celebrate together and grieve together. Their reverence for the land, family and community is a dying way of life and makes one wonder about the direction modern life has taken. 

Hannah Coulter is one of the wisest books I have ever read.  It is to be savored word by word. For a fast reader like myself, I actually found it impossible to read quickly, as I wanted to allow each sentence to sink slowly in. Here’s another excerpt:

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 your 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.” P. 113

I’m not sure if you will find these passages as enticing on their own as they are in the book. But if you are looking for a rich and warmly told story that it full of wisdom, then try Hannah Coulter. This book will make you think about life and love and purpose and all sorts of weighty questions long after you have finished the final sentence. 

And finally some of Hannah's thoughts on death.

Death is a sort of lens, though I used to think of it as a wall or a shut door. It changes things and makes things clear. Maybe it is the truest way of knowing this dream, this brief and timeless life. Sometimes when I try to remember Nathan, I can’t see him exactly enough. Other times, when I haven’t thought of him, he comes to me unbidden, and I see him more clearly, I think, than I ever did.  Am I awake then, or there, or here? (p. 157)

Here’s a hint. At the back of the book is a mapping of all of the families of Port William starting in the 1850’s and going to present day. It is VERY helpful to refer back to so you can sort out who everyone is. 

Thanks to Jennifer Mann for bringing this book to my attention!


  1. Thank you so much for this lovely book review...I have grown to love Wendell Berry's poetry so much, and have been meaning to dive into some of his prose. Now I know exactly where to start! XO

  2. Hi Robin,
    As you know, I too have loved this book and I'm so glad it moved you as it did. Here's another excerpt from the book that speaks to both grief and gratitude, and what holds them together: LOVE!

    "Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.

    Sometimes too I could see that love is a great room with a lot of doors, where we are invited to knock and come in. Though it contains all the world, the sun, moon, and stars, it is so small as to be also in our hearts. It is in the hearts of those who choose to come in. Some do not come in. Some may stay out forever. Some come in together and leave separately. Some come in and stay, until they die, and after I am there with all the others, most of them gone but some who are still here, who gave me love and called out the love from me. When I number them over, I am surprised how many there are. And so I have to say that another
    of the golden threads is gratitude."


  3. I love that quote, Marcy. It was really hard narrowing down all the choices as the book is just so ripe with little nuggets. I'm looking forward to a second reading of it.

  4. I've not read any of the books in that series, but they sound very good indeed. Thank you for the recommendation, Robin.