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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.
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*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.