It’s the year 2000 and Hannah Coulter is 78 years old. She’s the title character in Wendell Berry’s novel and she spends the novel telling the reader about her life in a Kentucky farming community. She doesn’t just tell the reader what happens, though. She reflects about her life, her community, and the role that community plays in her life and how it fits into the world at large. Much of her story is being told to her nephew, Andy Catlett.
As an 18 year-old, Hannah marries Virgil Feltner who didn’t come back from World War II. A few years after Virgil’s death, she marries Nathan Coulter. She talks of this marriage as her “long” marriage. But her first marriage still seems fresh in her mind. She remembers it with youth and innocence and all of the romance that goes with that. She recognizes that the marriage was never allowed to grow old – for better or for worse. Her marriage to Nathan, who also fought in World War II but came home with memories of Okinawa and doesn’t die until he’s in his 70’s, gets to grow old with both good times and bad times but always with the strength of their character and their community.
So much of Wendell Berry’s writing involves loss. Hannah’s story is no different. She deals with the loss of her first husband and eventually the loss of her second husband. Her children move away from the family farm and she lives to see significant members of her community pass away. The loss of family farming as a way of life is especially difficult for Hannah and Nathan as they live throughout the majority of the twentieth century seeing numerous technological changes that they don’t always consider to be for the better. The great losses of Hannah’s life are dealt with but not in a way in which she “gets over” them. The losses themselves never go away. Hannah just goes on living her life with them and in spite of them. The learning to live with them takes her most of her life:
As I have told it over, the past visible again in the present, the dead living still in their absence, this dream of time seems to come to rest in eternity. My mind, I think, has started to become, it is close to being, the room of love where the absent are present, the dead are alive, time is eternal, and all the creatures prosperous. The room of love is the love that holds us all, and it is not ours. It goes back before we were born. It goes all the way back. It is Heaven’s. Or it is Heaven, and we are in it only by willingness. By whose love, Andy Catlett, do we love this world and ourselves and one another? Do you think we invented it ourselves? I ask with confidence, for I know you know we didn’t.
I’ve never been one to choose between plot-driven stories and stories that are not but, of the latter, Hannah Coulter is one of the best.