Book Review: Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry

Title: Hannah Coulter
Author: Wendell Berry
Genre: Literary fiction
Publisher: Shoemaker Hoard
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Source: Print copy borrowed from my mom
First line: “I picked him up in my arms and I carried him home.”

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.

Hannah Coulter is a simple book. Hannah is at the end of her life, and she looks back over the years behind her, telling her story and the stories of the people she loves. Wendell Berry is one of the only authors who could take such a simple premise and turn it into a work of beauty, a novel that reads like an ode to the simple things that make up a life: family, friends, a home, a place, love, children.

I’ve raved about Wendell Berry before – enough that I decided to host a reading challenge devoted to him this year. I’ve adored his short fiction (That Distant Land), his essays (The Art of the Commonplace), and his poetry (Sabbath Poems), but Hannah Coulter was the first of his Port William novels that I’ve read.

Berry loves the land, land that he continues to farm to this day. Port William is based on Port Royal, Kentucky, where Berry lives, and his respect and love for the land and the people who work it infuse every word on every page.

Hannah Coulter is a beloved member of the fictional Port William community, a woman who loved two men, who was touched by war, who raised three children, and who honored the place she lived. Reading this novel is like sitting down with a beloved grandmother and hearing her tell you about her life, about what is important, about the people she has been surrounded by. And as you listen, you learn what it means to honor others, to respect yourself, to be content.

There is simply no way I can do justice to the beauty of this book and the power of his prose, so I’ll leave you with a few of the (many, many) passages I marked so that I would remember them.

Hannah speaking of her grandmother:

She would do a man’s work when she needed to, but she lived and died without ever putting on a pair of pants. She wore dresses. Being a widow, she wore them black. Being a woman of her day, she wore them long. The girls of her time, I think, must have been like well-wrapped gifts, to be opened by their husbands on their wedding night, a complete surprise. “Well! What’s this?”

Hannah speaking of her first husband:

When you are old you can look back and see yourself when you were young. It is almost like looking down from Heaven. And you see yourself as a young woman, just a big girl really, half awake to the world. You see yourself happy, holding in your arms a good, decent, gentle, beloved young man with the blood keen in his veins, who before long is going to disappear, just disappear into a storm of hate and flying metal and fire. And you don’t know it.

Hannah speaking of grief:

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 thread 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.

Hannah speaking of becoming a mother for the first time:

To know that I was known by a new living being, who had not existed until she was made in my body by my desire and brought forth into the world by my pain and strength – that changed me. My heart, which seemed to have only loss and grief in it before, now had joy in it also.

Hannah on marriage:

We quarreled because we loved each other, I have no doubt of that. We were trying to become somehow the same person, one flesh, and we often failed. When distance came between us, we would blame it on each other. And here is a wonder. I maybe never loved him so much or yearned toward him so much as when I was mad at him. It’s not a simple thing, this love.

Hannah on growing old together:

The only people here were just this aging couple, getting a little too small for their skin, their hair turning white, standing it might be in the middle of the kitchen or the garden or the barn lot, hugging each other the way the hungry eat, in a hurry for night to fall. We still had the children to think about and worry about, of course, wherever they were, and our work always ahead of us, and the place always around us with its needs and demands, and yet for a while there I would think that this, this right now, was all the world that I held in my arms. It was like falling in love, only more than that; we knew too much by then for it to be only that. It was knowing that love was what it was, and life would not complete it and death would not stop it. While we held each other and our old desire came upon us, eternity flew into time like a lighting dove.

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10 Responses to Book Review: Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry

  1. Beth Hoffman says:

    Love your review! I am so eager to read this book.

  2. Carrie, I can’t get enough of Hannah Coulter. This is another book which is performed wonderfully for an audio book. On one trip I took to Seattle the reading was almost the perfect length from doorstep to doorstep. It felt like Hannah was sitting in the seat beside me, telling me her story.

    Thanks for the great review.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies

      Carol – I’ll have to keep the audio in mind for when I’m ready for a reread! In the meantime, I have Nathan Coulter, Andy Catlett, and A Place on Earth waiting on my shelf. 🙂

  3. Melissa says:

    Another wonderful review. Do you know if the Port William novels should be read in any particular order or am I fine to jump in with this one?

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies

      Melissa – while they all take place in Port William, they aren’t one continuing long story. Each book seems to focus on a different character. I read the collected Port Williams short stories (That Distant Land) first, and then this one, and didn’t feel like I was missing anything. I recognized character names, but didn’t have any missing information.

  4. bermudaonion (Kathy)
    Twitter: bermudaonion

    This sounds like a gorgeous book!

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