04 December 2014

Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry



     Joy of joys! I may have found a book club. I sort of weaseled my way into the group on Monday night and I think I’m going to be a member. I can barely contain my excitement. Anyway, they are reading Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry and I read it as quickly as I could to catch up. Let’s revisit that “quickly as I could” bit. I warn everyone even considering reading it that this book is a tear jerker, but not in that over the top emotionally manipulative way, in like the quiet sadness that is super beautiful kind of way. I actually had to put it down a few times and read something else because it was too emotional.
     Despite all that I loved it! It was a novel written by a poet which is entirely different than a poem written by a novelist, by the way. There were quite a few chunks of the novel that I felt could be extracted and still be a great poem. There were sentences you had to read over again not necessarily because it took another go to understand (though there was that too), but just to taste the beauty of words and feel the emotions again.
     The novel itself reads much the same as Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead.  Hannah Coulter is a now eighty year old woman looking back on her life. The story is somewhat told to her nephew who apparently is considered the most like Wendell Berry himself, but is mainly her own reminiscences to herself now that her husband is gone.
     Hannah Coulter is a story of loss. This loss could come from death but also comes from eras changing, from children growing up, from people moving away, and from war. The beauty of it is that throughout this story of loss there is, in Hannah’s words, “gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.” These gold threads of light in the darkness of loss are love and thankfulness. “Love is what carries you,” Hannah says, “for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark.” As Hannah recalls how full of loss her life is she doesn’t grumble or complain. She somehow tells a heartbreaking story and manages to concentrate on the blessings and the love that she has had.
     What I particularly loved were the amazing Christian themes in the book evoked by blatant biblical phrasing. Hannah and her husband refer to their community as “the membership.” And the Coulter’s neighbors truly embraced the spirit of unity. The way Hannah described it sounds similar to the way the church ought to be.  The concept of Love in the book seemed very Christian as well. As Christians we know the real Love that is always there, even in the dark. We know it is God’s love. And we know that God supplies us with things to be happy about. They maybe aren’t the things we think we want, but they are other kindnesses and we should thank him for those. In almost the middle of the book there is an account of one of the members of Hannah’s “membership” playing the hymn “Abide With Me” (my actual favorite hymn) which is basically about God being with us whatever is happening around us.
     The book is so moving. I cannot say enough times how wonderful it was. Wendell Berry actually wrote a couple of books and a few short stories about this community from the perspectives of different members. I want to read them all now. I think this might go down as one of the best books I read in 2014. 

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