Executive Times






2005 Book Reviews


Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry


Rating: (Highly Recommended)




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The latest novel from Wendell Berry, Hannah Coulter, has the title character narrate the story of her life in Port William, the town in which Berry’s fiction is set. Until this novel, I’ve thought Berry is at his best in the short story form, but even though a chapter or two of this novel were published earlier as stories, the complete novel is close to perfection. Hannah Coulter lives through the grief and pain of losses, and her testament to living becomes an inspiration for all readers as we struggle with the setbacks of our own lives.


Frequent readers count on Berry’s writing to be poetic, to capture on every page just the right word and image. When Berry has Hannah talk about grief, I began to lose my breath: the writing was just that good. I went back and re-read some pages several times. Read the excerpt to see what I mean.


Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of Chapter 8, “Nathan,” pp. 61-66:


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 never will be filled. But we shut our mouths and go ahead. How we are is “Fine.” There are always a few who wifi recite their complaints, but the proper answer to “How are you?” is “Fine.”

The thing you have most dreaded has happened at last. The worst thing you might have expected has happened, and you didn’t expect it. You have grown old and ill, and most of those you have loved are dead or gone away. Even so:

“How’re you?”

“Fine. How’re you?”


There is always some shame and fear in this, I think, shame for the terrible selfishness and loneliness of grief, and fear of the difference between your grief and anybody else’s. But this is a kind of courtesy too and a kind of honesty, an unwillingness to act as if loss and grief and suf­fering are extraordinary. And there is something else: an honoring of the solitude in which the grief you have to bear will have to be borne. Should you fall on your neighbor’s shoulder and weep in the midst of work? Should you go to the store with tears on your face? No. You are fine.

And yet the comfort somehow gets passed around: a few words that are never forgotten, a note in the mail, a look, a touch, a pat, a hug, a kind of waiting with, a kind of standing by, to the end. Once in a while we hear it sung out in a hymn, when every throat seems suddenly widened with love and a common longing:


In the sweet by and by,

We shall meet on that beautiful shore.


We all know what that beautiful shore is. It is Port William with all its loved ones come home alive.


My life with Virgil was a romance, because it never had a chance to become anything else. We were a courting couple, and then we were newlyweds in the shadow of war, and then the war separated us forever. We became only a pretty memory and now I am the last of its remem­berers. Oh, maybe the Catlett boys still remember, but they were too young then to have remembered much. Andy, I hope you do remember, at least a little.

My life with Nathan turned out to be a long life, an actual marriage, with trouble in it. I am not complaining. Troubles came, as they were bound to do, as the promise we made had warned us that they would. I can remember the troubles and speak of them, but not to complain. I am beginning again to speak of my gratitude.

By the time Virgil went into the army, Mr. Feltner and Joe Banion were getting old. Jarrat and Burley Coulter began raising most of Mr. Feltner’s crops on the shares, and it was a good thing. He needed their help. He needed their company too. Their losses in the war had made them close, and especially a friendship grew between Mr. Feltner and Burley that was dear and necessary to them.

Jarrat and Burley would often be at work on the Feltner place, and after he was discharged and came home, Nathan would be with them. I was about to say that at first he was nothing to me, but that is not quite right. In Port William, back then, nobody was exactly nothing to anybody. I knew Nathan had been in the war, in the hard fighting in the Pacific at the last. I knew he had lost his brother in the war, and now he had come home to farm with his father and his uncle.

I knew too that the Coulter family had come to a strange pass, having dwindled to a widower and two bachelors, living in two houses on adjoining farms, Burley and Nathan in one and Jarrat alone in the other. Jarrat had lived alone ever since the death of his wife when the boys were young, because that was the way it suited him to live. Burley, according to gossip, had a sweetheart, a might-as-well-be-wife, Kate Helen Branch, and a said-to-be son by her, Danny Branch, but Burley didn’t live with them or they with him. What Nathan was doing for company, female or otherwise, I didn’t know, and for a long time I didn’t wonder. What he was doing was picking up girls at the Rosebud Cafe down at Hargrave, as lonely Port William men have often done. I didn’t know it then, and if I had I wouldn’t have cared. Well, I don’t care yet.

He was not nothing to me, but he didn’t matter to me either.

But sometimes my grief for Virgil would become mingled with grief for myself. I didn’t want to be selfish. In the midst of so much grief, mine and other people’s, I feared the guilt of wanting anything for myself. I had little Margaret to look after and think about and enjoy. Though I had quit working away from home, I was busy every day about the place with Mrs. Feltner and Nettie Banion. So much was a plenty. My conscience told me it was enough and more than enough. And yet time didn’t stop, life didn’t stop, we learned to believe that “missing” had to mean “dead,” month after month separated us from the last we would ever know of Virgil, and in time, against conscience and even will, my grief for him began to include grief for myself. Sometimes I would get the feeling that I was going to waste. It was my life calling me to itself. It was the light that shines in darkness calling me back into time.

That was how Nathan began to matter to me. For a long time after he was home, I looked on him just as a fixture of the life of Port William as it had reshaped itself after the war. But if nobody can ever quite be noth­ing to you in Port William, then everybody finally has got to be some­thing to you. It took a while. Nathan was a quiet man and not a forward one. To me, he was somebody off on the edge of things, which seemed to content him well enough. But I began to know him. When the men would be working together, I would sometimes carry water to them, or sometimes even dinner if they were working far from the house. Or we would be feeding a harvest crew, and he would be with them. He became a presence to me. It was his presence that gave me the feeling that I was going to waste.

Maybe that was because he seemed so clearly to be going to waste himself. Maybe he wasn’t settled at home yet, but it seemed he was just there, just doing whatever he needed to do, which I guessed was the way he had been and done in the army. By then, of course, I knew about the Rosebud girls. One reason nobody could be nothing to you in Port Wil­liam in those days was that you couldn’t help knowing at least some­thing about everybody. I was a little older than Nathan—two years, a long time when you are young—and maybe I felt sort of motherly toward him. He clearly wasn’t a settled man or a very happy one. Maybe it didn’t occur to me that I was going to waste because he thought I was. What I thought was, “He needs a woman. He needs a woman of his own. He needs a wife.” This seemed merely what anybody would have thought, looking at Nathan as he was then. And in fact, one day when we were finishing up in the kitchen after feeding dinner to the Coulters and some others, Mrs. Feltner said, “I just don’t feel like Nathan’s as happy as he ought to be. What he needs is a wife.”

Nettie Banion said, “Yessum, he does. He needs to buy him some meat and bring it home!”


I could say he gradually assumed a sort of standing in my eyes. He had the hardiness of his father and uncle, their indifference to bad weather, and their sufferance of whatever work or difficulty had come or would come. He was absolutely loyal to them. When they were at work, he was. He was a fine hand. I knew that Mr. Feltner respected him. And young as he was, he clearly had a love of farming that was his own. He was quiet, he never put himself forward, but he was there. You couldn’t not notice him. And just as slowly as he became a presence to me, I became aware that I was present to him. I knew it by the way he was looking at me.

Nathan was a beautiful man. In my heart and memory he will always be beautiful, but in those days nobody could have missed it. In his quiet­ness and in other ways, he took after his father, but in his looks he resembled Burley. Looking at Nathan, you could imagine how Burley had looked as a young man. He wasn’t overly tall, but he was broad-shouldered and strongly made without looking in any way thick. He was as clean cut as a sapling. He wore his clothes and ate and drank in a way that told you he would be offended by anything slovenly.

But his best beauty was in his face, mostly in his eyes. From the time I was first aware of him, I never caught him sneaking a look. He looked at you with a look that was entirely direct, entirely clear. His look said, “Here I am, as I am, like it or not.” There was no apology in his look and no plea, but there was purpose. When he began to look at me with pur­pose, I felt myself beginning to change. It was not a look a woman would want to look back at unless she was ready to take off her clothes. I was aware of that look a long time before I was ready to look back. I knew that when I did I would be a goner. We both would be. We would be given over to a time that would be ours together, and we could not know what it would be.

When I finally did look back at him, it was lovely beyond the telling of this world, and it was almost terrible. After that, we were going into the dark. We understood, and we were scared, and I wanted nothing more than to go into the dark with him.

I was beautiful in those days myself, as I believe I can admit now that it no longer matters. A woman doesn’t learn she is beautiful by looking in a mirror, which about any woman is apt to do from time to time, but that is only wishing. She learns it so that she actually knows it from men. The way they look at her makes a sort of glimmer she walks in. That tells her. It changes the way she walks too. But now I was a mother and a widow It had been a longish while since I had thought of being beauti­ful, but Nathan’s looks were reminding me that I was.

To know that Nathan was thinking such thoughts mattered to me. It mattered to me whether or not I was willing to let it matter, and I wasn’t willing. I was unwilling, and I was afraid. In spite of myself, I felt myself changing, but I was afraid to change. I didn’t want to be carried away from my old love for Virgil, which I thought my grief preserved, or from my loyalty, which I deeply owed and felt, to him and his family. I was afraid of the unknown, even of my own life that was unfinished and going on.

Nathan began to speak to me, not in a friendly way in passing, in front of company, but as he got or made the chances he began to say things to me that were meant for me alone.

The first thing he ever said in that way was, “Hannah, there’s going to be a dance down to Hargrave. I want you to go with me, and I think you ought to let me take you.”

Just like that. He wasn’t handing me a “line,” for sure. It wasn’t a request. It was hardly even polite. He had made up his mind and he was telling me, take it or leave it. He wasn’t offering me a “date.” He was offering me himself, as he was.

I had never called him by name. I said, “I don’t think so.”

He didn’t ask me why. He didn’t look or sound regretful. Just a little on the kind side of carelessly, he said, “Well. All right.”

He was going to have to make do with the Rosebud girls a while longer, but he had troubled me.

He knew he had. After a time or two, he gave up asking me to go out with him, understanding, I think, the difficulty of that for me. How could I think of going out on dates from the house I had lived in with Virgil, that I still lived in with his parents, the house where Mr. and Mrs. Feltner had so freely made me at home? But after that he continued to talk to me. And I continued to listen, and even sometimes to say some­thing in return. I still looked at him only in glances. It wasn’t going to be easy for me to look straight back at that look of his. It would not be easy and it would not be soon. But it became easy to call him Nathan and to listen to him and to answer. I liked him. I had better go ahead and say I loved him, risky as it is to use that word so soon. Your first love for some­body can last, and this one did, but it changes too after promises have been made and time has passed and knowledge has come. But even then, even before the beginning, I loved him. When I felt him looking at me with that look, I felt it like a touch.


Hannah Coulter is a fine novel, and just might be Berry’s best.


Steve Hopkins, January 25, 2005



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