Hannah Coulter: A Novel Paperback – Sep 30 2005
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. "This is the story of my life, that while I lived it weighed upon me and pressed against me and filled all my senses to overflowing and now is like a dream dreamed.... This is my story, my giving of thanks." So begin the reflections of Hannah Coulter, the twice-widowed protagonist of this slim, incandescent novel in Berry's Port William series. In 1940, the precocious, innocent Hannah leaves her small Kentucky farming town to work as a secretary in nearby Hargrave, where she meets Virgil Feltner, seven years her senior, who gently courts her. They marry and have a daughter, but Virgil, "called to the army in 1942," dies in the Battle of the Bulge. Love follows mourning, as a kind but driven farmer, Nathan Coulter, returns from combat and woos Hannah. In delicate, shimmering prose, Berry tracks Hannah's loves and losses through the novel's first half; the narrative sharpens as Hannah recounts her children's lives—Margaret becomes a schoolteacher with a troubled son; Mattie ("a little too eager to climb Fool's Hill") flees rural life to become a globe-trotting communication executive; Caleb, Nathan's hope to run the family farm, becomes a professor of agriculture instead. Beneath the story of ordinary lives lies the work of an extraordinarily wise novelist: as Hannah relates her children's fate to her own deeply rooted rural background, she weaves landscape and family and history together ("My mind... is close to being the room of love where the absent are present, the dead are alive, time is eternal and all creatures prosperous"). Her compassion enlivens every page of this small, graceful novel.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
*Starred Review* For the first 40 pages or so, Berry's latest novel about the Kentucky farming community called, by its inhabitants as well as the author, the Port William membership, seems more of same. A good same, for few write American English more limpidly than Berry, and he has realized his characters as thoroughly as Faulkner did any of the people of Yoknapatawpha County. But as this telling of a farm woman's life in her voice continues--and voice it seems more than writing, so spontaneously speechlike are its cadences and the simple accuracy of its diction--it feels ever more poetic. Not gnomic and surrealist, like prose poetry, but flowing and long breathed, like epic poetry. Of course, the story it tells is epical, that of a heroine who expresses, in her living and doing, the essence of her people. Its character is domestic rather than martial; though, since its time span includes World War II, its trials include the MIA disappearance of Hannah's first husband and the ghastly combat experience of her second, Nathan Coulter, which Hannah learns of with any precision only after his death a half-century later. If its domesticity is more often happy and fulfilling, though, the cultural movement--the short, precipitate, ill-informed, poorly considered demise of the American family farm--over which Hannah's beautiful and heartbreaking story arches is as tragic as any war. Ray Olson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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I don't know if you will ever see this, but it is the only way I know of letting you know how much your stories mean to me. I read your books with a highlighter, as there are just too many meaningful passages not to be marked and referenced over and over again. You certainly have a gift for words. The melodious nature of your writing is as addicting as is anything else I have ever experienced. The stories you tell and retell about the citizens of Port William, are for me lessons of a sort. For those of us who sometime wonder what love is, what kindness means, and what it means to be part of something greater than self-serving interests, well, you provide an extraordinary example in your wonderful work.
Thank you so much, for the pleasure I get when I read what you have written.
The prose is luminous. It's like Berry found a way to turn his poetry into a novel.
This is a deep reading experience. You'll overhear the story of a woman who lost her mother, than her first husband, but found a place in which to make a world, a kind of new world, almost a new Jerusalem (it is sacred ground in the best, ordinary sense).
"Hannah Counter" is also the first and the only (so far) of Berry's novels in which sexual love within marriage is portrayed directly. I have wondered why in previous stories he just skips over the intimacies of marriage; the only sex, even oblique, is between the men of Port William and the women of Hargrave! Now, in "Hannah Coulter," he writes Hannah's and Nathan's desire for each other with aching sweetness.
I don't know how Berry imagines his way inside his characters' skins -- especially his women -- but he does that with supreme skill."Hannah Coulter" is his most recent novel and his most subtle and skillful, and perhaps most poetic. I loved it, and if you are a fan of Berry's fiction and/or poetry, you will too!
People in Port William don't live in fear. "It was getting on toward dark, but I could see the car well enough, and I didn't recognize it. I hesitated a minute. The country is full of strangers now, and you hear tales. There are , no doubt about it, some people who would knock an old woman in the head more or less on speculation. But I thought "What of it?" and went on out."
Hannah's accounts of the two loves of her life and the deepness and fullness of that love are the best descriptions of mature, lasting love that I have ever read.
Hannah looks to the future of Port William with some sadness as the lines of generations of farmers have been broken. This is reflected in the paths chosen by her own children.
"But did we tell the stories right? It was lovely, the telling and the listening, usually the last thing before bedtime. But did we tell the stories in such a way as to suggest that we had needed a better chance or a better life or a better place than we had?
I don't know, but I have had to ask. Suppose your stories, instead of mourning and rejoicing over the past, say that everything should have been different. Suppose you encourage or even just allow your children to believe that their parents ought to have been different people, with a better chance, born in a better place. Or suppose the stories you tell them allow them to believe, when they hear it from other people, that farming people are inferior and need to improve themselves by leaving the farm. Doesn't that finally unmake everything that has been made? Isn't that the loose thread that unravels the whole garment?
And how are you ever to know where the thread breaks, and when the tug begins?"
Wendell Berry's writing is a gift and I am deeply grateful.