Book Review: Hannah Coulter

My grandmother’s childhood home in Center Point, Indiana.

Both sets of my grandparents moved into assisted living in the last couple of months. One of each couple is struggling with mental or physical difficulties, and living at home came to be too much. All four of them are in their nineties, so you might say that they are lucky to have made it this long on their own. Yet there is something indescribably sad about watching an elderly person’s world grow smaller while, at the same time, your own grows wider. It does not require much imagination to think of how it must feel to have a lifetime of independence stripped away, bit by little bit.

One of my grandmothers, possessed of unusual foresight, wrote out the story of her youth for her grandchildren some time over twenty-five years ago. Maybe she had always felt loss at not knowing enough of her own grandparents’ backstory and determined to record her own story for posterity. Whatever the reason, I have a handwritten journal from her, filled with her earliest recollections of childhood on a west-central Indiana farm—learning at a one-room schoolhouse heated by a pot-bellied stove, bottle-feeding a pet lamb, using a chamber pot at night, and picking corn by hand in the summer.

About the time these written recollections leave off, the slide photos pick up. One of the favorite family gathering pastimes of my young cousins and I was asking to have the slide projector set up for a slide show. We soaked up the story of our grandparents and our mothers through pictures of different houses, road trips across America, funny clothing, and hilarious hair styles. Aside from all of the fun, sitting together in the darkened living room and watching the snapshots as they shuffled through the projector grounded us in a sense of place and the kind of people from which we came.

Hannah CoulterReading Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter is like sitting and listening to your grandmother tell stories about the people she knew and the corner of the world in which she lived. Recently widowed for the second time, the elderly Hannah sets herself to remembering life and laying up the lessons it taught her. Her life is not my grandmother’s life, but their need to tell their stories brought them together in my mind.

Hannah came to adulthood shortly before World War II, and her life grew from the farmland of northern Kentucky. She was dirt poor—but bright and intelligent—and had the advantage of a grandmother who prepared her with everything she would need to know simply by teaching her how to run a farm. Her insulated world was scarred when her first husband was killed in the war, but Hannah rebuilt her life a few years later with a survivor, Nathan Coulter. For Hannah and Nathan, carving a living out of the land, raising responsible children, and dwelling in “membership” community with their neighbors was the only right response to an outside, foreign world that had been on fire and consumed so much of what they loved. Hannah discloses her hopes and expectations for her children and grandchildren—even though in them she begins to see her way of life, lived for hundreds of years before her—aging and dying with the members of her own generation. She shares her tender sorrow at the change and loss of her world.

Hannah tells her story gently and with a lifetime of wisdom; I found it as thought-provoking and inspirational as if it were told to me by someone that I respected and loved. She describes the years of work in building a marriage by love and kindness and how to survive grief and the loss of expectations with thankfulness in all things. Peeking through Hannah’s words is a vision of a God of love and a communion with Him and our loved ones in that love.

Hannah Coulter is the first novel I have read by Wendell Berry and he certainly strikes me as a modern master of his craft. He’s created a story of truth, not only in the way his characters seem to be people I’ve known at one time or another, but also by mingling the way that they live with the broad truths of the world that God gave us to live in. He turned my thoughts to my grandparents, to the lives they’ve lived and the people they’ve known, and how their stories will only ever be fully known by them.

I cannot do justice to the words Berry wrote, so here is some of my favorite wisdom from Hannah.

On grief and loss:

“I began to know my story then. Like everybody’s, it was going to be the story of living in the absence of the dead. What is the tread that holds it all together? Grief, I thought for a while. And grief is there sure enough, just about all the way through. From the time I was a girl I have never been far from it. But grief is not a force and has no power to hold. You only bear it. Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.

Sometimes too I could see that love is a great room with a lot of doors, where we are invited to knock and come in. Though it contains all the world, the sun, moon, and stars, it is so small as to be also in our hearts. It is in the hearts of those who choose to come in. Some do not come in. Some may stay out forever. Some come in together and leave separately. Some come in and stay, until they die, and after. I was in it a long time with Nathan. I am still in it with him. And what about Virgil? Once, we too went in and were together in that room. And now in my tenderness of remembering it all again, I think I am still there with him too. I am there with all the others, most of them gone but some who are still here, who gave me love and called forth love from me. When I number them over, I am surprised how many there are. And so I have to say that another of the golden threads is gratitude.

I was grateful because I knew, even in my fear and grief, that my life had been filled with gifts.”

On marriage:

“The gentleness I knew in him seemed to be calling out, and it was a gentleness in me that answered. That gentleness, calling and answering, giving and taking, brought us together. It brought us into the room of love. It made our place clear around us.

Nathan said, ‘You’ve seen those dragonflies flying together joined. How do they know to fly in the same direction?’

‘They know,’ I said. ‘They know the same way we know.'”

“It would be … like the coming of the rhymes in a song, a different song, this one, a long song, the rhymes sometimes wide apart, but the rhymes would come…. But you may have a long journey to travel to meet somebody in the innermost inwardness and sweetness of that room. You can’t get there just by wanting to, or just because the night falls. The meeting is prepared in the long day, in the work of years, in the keeping of faith, in kindness.”

On memory:

“What you won’t see, but what I see always, is the pattern of our life here that made and kept it as you see it now, all the licks and steps and rounds of work, all the comings and goings, all the days and years. A lifetime’s knowledge shimmers on the face of the land in the mind of a person who knows. The history of a place is the mind of an old man or an old woman who knows it, walking over it, and it is never fully handed on to anybody else, but has been mostly lost, generation after generation, going back and back to the first Indians. And now the history of Nathan’s and my life here is fading away. When I am gone, it too will be mostly gone.

Sometimes I imagine another young couple, strong and full of desire, coming quietly into this old house that will be empty again of all that is of any use, and will be stale and silent and dingy with dust, and they will see it shining before them as Nathan and I saw it fifty-two years ago. And I say ‘Welcome! Love each other. Love this place and use it well. Bless your hearts.’”

“You think you will never forget any of this, you will remember it always just the way it was. But you can’t remember it the way it was. To know it, you have to be living in the presence of it right as it is happening. It can only return by surprise. Speaking of these things tells you that there are no words for them that are equal to them or that can restore them to your mind. And so you have a life that you are living only now, now and now and now, gone before you can speak of it, and you must be thankful for living day by day, moment by moment, in this presence.… When you remember the past, you are not remembering it as it was. You are remembering it as it is. It is a vision or a dream, present with you in the present, alive with you in the only time you are alive.”

“Even old, your husband is the young man you remember now. Even dead, he is the man you remember, not as he was but as he is, alive still in your love. Death is a sort of lens, though I used to think of it as a wall or a shut door. It changes things and makes them clear. Maybe it is the truest way of knowing this dream, this grief and timeless life.”

“Like a lot of old people I have known, I am now living in two places: the place as it was and the place as it is.”As it was it is almost always present to me, with the dead moving about in it as they were.”

On expectations:

“Living without expectations is hard but, when you can do it, good. Living without hope is harder, and that is bad. You have got to have hope, and you mustn’t shirk it. Love, after all, ‘hopeth all things.’ But maybe you must learn, and it is hard learning, not to hope out loud, especially for other people. You must not let your hope turn into expectation.”

On thankfulness:

“The chance you had is the life you’ve got. You can make complaints about what people, including you, make of their lives after they have got them, and about what people make of other people’s lives, even about your children being gone, but you mustn’t wish for another life. You mustn’t want to be somebody else. What you must do is this: ‘Rejoice everymore. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks.’ I am not all the way capable of so much, but those are the right instructions.”

★ ★ ★ ★ ★/5 stars