Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry, Book review

I just finished Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry.  It is a book I would recommend, with caveats.  The caveats have more to do with the potential readers than the book itself, which I found lovely.

My past experience with Berry is reading What are People For? , hearing him speak at the Southern writer's conference that is held every two years in Chattanooga (it has a more proper name, which I am ignoring), and being aware of his viewpoints.  My take on his viewpoints is irrelevant.  He is anti-war, anti-big  farm, anti-nuclear power, anti- a lot of things, which sort of makes him on the verge of being a curmudgeon.  He is also anti-computer, and raised a lot of ire a few years back by saying he refuses to use a computer to write and that he uses an old typewriter (that's a technology).  Knowing these things about Berry makes me a little too aware in the novel of when he is "preaching," letting his main character Hannah be a mouthpiece for his views.  That is my first issue with the novel, but unlike Berry, I don't want to be anti-.

I prefer to be pro, and I am pro-this novel, because the writing is beautiful and the plot is very believable and human and real.  There is nothing in this novel where I said, "That couldn't happen" or where doubt would enter in.  It is very like the history of my own family, on both sides, in the loss or at least demise of the family homestead despite the decades of work that the ancestors have put into it.  But farming is a tough life, and I don't believe people should be criticized for leaving it when larger forces make it extremely difficult.  Not all of us are gifted to be farmers; not all of us are intended to be farmers.  The economy then and now could not sustain all farmers.   

Do I think Berry is criticizing those who leave farming?  Maybe I am reading something into it.  But Hannah definitely mourns that all her children leave the farm and have no commitment to it, and that the return of her prodigal grandson to the farm is seen as a kind of redemption.  I know from other research that one hundred years ago over half the population in the U.S. farmed for a living; now less than 2% does.  Is that a bad thing, or just a thing?  Berry has an ideal in mind, and to the extent that the novel occasionally becomes polemical, I have to warn a potential reader.  You can come into the novel totally ignorant of Berry's activism, and read it as a work of fiction as memoir, or you can read it as part of his whole corpus.

Aside from that, it is lovely, as I said before.  Even if the voice of Hannah is far too educated and correct for what a woman of her time and standing would be, I settled into it.  "She" "speaks" lucidly of love with a man, of place, of dying, of loss.  I don't know who would be willing to read it, other than those in academic settings, which is unfortunate.  It is a literary novel, and that usually means "boring" for general readers, which is sad.  I hope that those reading this review will ignore that label, and relax themselves into a chair to hear the story of a woman who lived through the American century and has much wisdom to relate.

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