Title: Andy Catlett: Early Travels
Author: Wendell Berry
Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Source: Print copy from my personal library
First line: It was still way in the night, as it seemed to me, when my father woke me by gently shaking my shoulder with his hand.
Andy Catlett: Early Travels tells the story of nine-year-old Andy, and his first solo trip to visit his grandparents during the Christmas season of 1943. He rides the bus alone and visits first one set of grandparents, then the other, and as he does, we learn who the people of Port William are, and see how time is changing both the place and its people. Modernization is changing the way the people live, and the specter of the war is ever-present, haunting each of them, every day.
This book is another example of Wendell Berry at his finest. His Port William fiction is full of people that I have come to love as if they were family. The more books in this series I read, the more I am making the connections between events and characters. Reading about Hannah living with the Feltners, waiting for letters from Virgil, is even more poignant having read her story – and Andy’s schoolboy crush on her is bittersweet.
This is a deceptively simple book. On the surface, it is just the story of a young boy’s holiday visit to family, the things he did while there, the people he talked to and worked with. But look a little deeper, and you see how talented Berry is at weaving universal themes like war, love, grief, race relations, change, and the passage of time into Andy’s tale.
Reading the books in the Port William series has become a kind of homecoming for me, and I’m glad I still have several titles ahead of me. I want to draw out the reading of these stories, savor them, sink into them, reading each and every one thoroughly before starting through again.
Andy’s thoughts about his grandpa:
He returned to what he called “studying.” He sat looking down at his lap, his left hand idle on the chair arm, his right scratching his head, his white hair gleaming in the lamplight. I knew that when he was studying he was thinking, but I did not know what about. Now I have aged into knowledge of what he thought about.
He thought of his strength and endurance when he was young, his merriment and joy, and how his life’s burdens had then grown up on him. He thought of that arc of country that centered upon Port William as he first had known it in the years just after the Civil War, and as it had changed, and as it had become; and how all that time, which would have seemed almost forever to him when he was a boy, now seemed hardly any time at all. He thought of the people he remembered, now dead, and of those who had come and gone before his knowledge, and of those who would come after, and of his own place in that long procession. Looking at me, he must have remembered that his own grandfather had been the first of our name to come into this place, in a time that had seemed ancient to him once, that he now knew to have been almost recent, and that the time from his grandfather to his grandson had been short. He thought of the living and how they would appear to the dead, until the dead lived again in his thoughts, and the presently living appeared as ghosts of a future yet to come. He thought of the history of his hands. He laid them in his lap and studied them, and he saw that they were hard-used and now almost useless. This was a study he could not have remembered beginning, and surely he knew that it could not be finished, by him or by anybody. ~ p. 59-60
Andy’s thoughts on the things he wishes he had asked:
Uncle Jack forsook his present worries, and the conversation, belonging then to him and Grandpa, took up the burden of times only they had known. They spoke of horses and mules and men and days. Now I can wish that I had stayed and listened and tried to remember. Now I can wish I had foreseen then what I would want to know now, and had asked the questions I now wish I had asked. What did their elders remember of the Civil War, and of the time before that? What did they tell about slavery? After the war, how were things rearranged between the races? Was the Klan active here? What did it do? Who was in it? What was it like here before the railroad came, or all-weather roads, when the only dependable transportation to and from Port William was by the river? What did they remember of the then still-standing ancient forests? How did they make it through the depression of the 1890s? The drought of 1908? But a boy’s mind is different from an old man’s by precisely a lifetime. And so the talk of that day went out into that day’s air and light and the silence beyond, and the silence has kept it. ~ p. 70-71