Review: Hannah Coulter

Hannah Coulter
Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A gifted writer, Berry tells the story of Hannah, a displaced woman twice widowed who finds a home with family and farm in Port William.

A master of moralizing through story without coming across preachy, Berry holds forth certain values for us to recover. We usually think of moralizers in the sexual or political arena, but Berry takes on other areas like work and neighborly relations. Nathan is a much better step-parent to Hannah’s daughter Margaret than Ivy was to Hannah (don’t be a selfish Ivy - care for others). Nathan rails on his lazier son for acting like a “damned employee” (don’t be an indifferent hireling - work eagerly). We were made to tend, keep and farm the soil, not leave it for a better life. Too many are indifferent to the land now (don’t leave the farm - love it). War is a horrible monster that takes good people away from their people and mangles them inside if not outside. Not much moralism on this one – just observing its carnage in a community.

Hannah Coulter is about a person finding her place in life. People get their identity from the place they live. Leaving it usually has catastrophic consequences. Hannah needed a different place when her stepmother came, then again when Virgil didn’t return. But after tending a homestead and farm with Nathan for many years, she had her place. Broken families and sexual unfaithfulness cannot displace years of tending people and a place. Nathan went to “the Rosebud girls” before courting Hannah. Burley never married Kate, nor officially claimed his “might-as-well-be-daughter.” These offenses are downplayed and redeemed by a life of loyalty to people and place. In this way Berry vests place and land with a bit too much importance, even though it is certain most people undervalue them. I found myself lamenting Kate's daughter, who is not even in the story beyond a mention, not having a father in Burley, while Berry lionizes Burley's story-telling and loyalty to clan.

Berry can turn a phrase now and then. When Hannah’s daughter hints that she has found the man she is going to marry Hannah says “the lightning flew through my heart.” It’s something everyone can identify from experience. His writing connects in a homely yet sophisticated way.

The story, with spoilers...
As a girl Hannah learns from her grandmother how to work and run a home, after her mother dies young. Her father remarries a woman who favors her own boys, and grandmother protects Hannah from a lot of possible cruelty. She sends Hannah to live with a friend in town when she turns 18. Her work as secretary is a needed job, but it doesn’t give her the sense of place so important to Berry. That takes marriage and membership. (I doubt Berry intended this, but it does assert a very impolitic thing today, that a woman finds her identity and place largely through the men in her life.)

Virgil comes courting Hannah, old school. He is careful not to try anything he wouldn’t in front of “Grandmam.” Instead he opens his heart to her by speaking to her of what is important to him: his work on the farm, his vision of a life together with her. This is what wins a woman. Describing a future where she is loved and has a place.

But Virgil goes to the war (WWII) and doesn’t return. Hannah spends 6-7 years in grief, only knowing he is “missing.” She raises little Margaret, but Nathan’s interest over time becomes obvious. At first Hannah resists, but she is drawn to his directness and his work ethic. She can see a life and a place with Nathan. They resurrect an abandoned farmstead and thrive as part of the “membership.” This is a community of family and neighbors that is vested in the enterprise of tending the land. It usually runs along family lines, though the morals of a nuclear family are bendable for it.

Grief comes in another form when their children grow up and move away, never to return. They look for a better place than the farm, just when Nathan and Hannah have made a place for them to inherit and live on.

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