HANNAH COULTER

Wendell Berry, Author . Shoemaker & Hoard $25 (190p) ISBN 978-1-59376-036-6

"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.... This is my story, my giving of thanks." So begin the reflections of Hannah Coulter, the twice-widowed protagonist of this slim, incandescent novel in Berry's Port William series. In 1940, the precocious, innocent Hannah leaves her small Kentucky farming town to work as a secretary in nearby Hargrave, where she meets Virgil Feltner, seven years her senior, who gently courts her. They marry and have a daughter, but Virgil, "called to the army in 1942," dies in the Battle of the Bulge. Love follows mourning, as a kind but driven farmer, Nathan Coulter, returns from combat and woos Hannah. In delicate, shimmering prose, Berry tracks Hannah's loves and losses through the novel's first half; the narrative sharpens as Hannah recounts her children's lives—Margaret becomes a schoolteacher with a troubled son; Mattie ("a little too eager to climb Fool's Hill") flees rural life to become a globe-trotting communication executive; Caleb, Nathan's hope to run the family farm, becomes a professor of agriculture instead. Beneath the story of ordinary lives lies the work of an extraordinarily wise novelist: as Hannah relates her children's fate to her own deeply rooted rural background, she weaves landscape and family and history together ("My mind... is close to being the room of love where the absent are present, the dead are alive, time is eternal and all creatures prosperous"). Her compassion enlivens every page of this small, graceful novel. (Nov. 21)

Forecast: Berry's reputation as a moralist may put off some readers, but those looking for an impassioned, literary vision of American rural life and values will find much to appreciate.

Reviewed on: 10/04/2004
Release date: 09/01/2004
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