Book Recommendation: Hannah Coulter

I don’t think that those who know me would expect me to highly recommend a novel in which the narrator is a twice widowed woman in her 70’s. And yet that’s exactly what I’m doing. Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry is one of the better novels that I’ve read.

Now I wouldn’t pretend that this novel will be to everyone’s taste. For one thing it is a novel driven by characters rather than plot telling the story of the small community of Port William, Kentucky in the mid 20th century. Hannah, a young mother, marries Nathan Coulter after her husband Virgil dies in the second world war. Together they raise three children, run a farm, and live a very ordinary life.

So why should you consider reading Hannah Coulter?

1. Wendell Berry, an author that I was familiar with but had never read, is an uncommonly good writer with an almost lyrical style. His insight into the human psyche is matched only by his command of the English language and his ability to describe ordinary life in an interesting way.

2. I found the community of small town pre-war America to be attractive. Christine and I just marked the sixth anniversary of living in our current home. This is the longest that we’ve ever lived in one place in our 21 years of marriage. More families are spread out and our mobility means that we are less relationally connected than previous generations. While there are no doubt benefits to this lifestyle, there is also a price to pay.

In Port William the community was more of a “membership” made up of like minded individuals and families who bound themselves together for mutual support.

“This membership had an economic purpose and it had and economic result, but the purpose and the result were a lot more than economic…the work was freely given in exchange for work freely given. There was no bookkeeping, no accounting, no settling up. What you owed was considered paid when you had done what was needed doing. Every account was paid in full by the understanding that when we were needed we would go, and when we had need the other, or enough of them, would come.”

3. This is a love story without the silliness that passes for falling in love today. Hannah and Nathan have a love that shares life together, possesses mutual respect, does not obsess over equality, and has a substance and selflessness to it that is often missing today. Here’s Hannah describing the beginning of their relationship…

“My life with Nathan turned out to be a long life, and 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 they would. I can remember the troubles and speak of them, but not to complain. I am beginning again to speak of my gratitude.”

Are there any novels that you’d recommend?

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