Monday, January 16, 2017

Port William Past and Present: Three Short Novels


by Wendell Berry

This book includes three novellas: Nathan Coulter, Remembering, and A World Lost. The stories are all set in the Port William community and involve the same characters but with different protagonists.

Nathan Coulter, the first novel, concerns Nathan as a young boy. In it, he begins to discern the connections that run throughout time within his family and the land.
I thought of the spring running there all the time, while the Indians hunted the country and while our people came and took the land and cleared it; and still running while Grandpa's grandfather and his father got old and died. And running while Grandpa drank its water and waited his turn. When I thought of it that way I knew I was waiting my turn too. But that didn't seem real. It was too far away to think about. And I saw how it would have been unreal to Grandpa for so long, and how it must have grieved him when it had finally come close enough to be known.
In the middle novel, Remembering, Andy Catlett is an adult struggling to adjust to life after an accident leading to the amputation of his hand. Through flashbacks, the reader discovers the turning points in his life that led to his renunciation of the pressures of modern life and a return to his family's land.

I always pick out the passages on marriage. Here, he's thinking about their marriage before the current crisis:
It was as though grace and peace were bestowed on them out of the sanctity of marriage itself, which simply furnished them to one another, free and sufficient as rain to leaf. It was as if they were not making marriage but being made by it, and, while it held them, time and their lives flowed over them, like swift water over stones, rubbing them together, grinding off their edges, making them fit together, fit to be together, in the only way that fragments can be rejoined. And though Andy did not understand this, and though he suffered from it, he trusted it and rejoiced in it.
Wandering around in San Francisco, his mind wanders through his past and he begins to emerge from his depression. His thoughts turn to his wife:
He has been wrong. His anger, his loneliness, his selfish grief, all have been wrong. That she, entrusted to him, should ever have wept because of him is his sorrow and his wrong.
The third story, A World Lost, Andy Catlett is a young boy, adjusting to life after his uncle was shot and killed. I struggled in this story to remember that Nathan (from the first story) and Andy (from the third) were different boys, but that was more my own problem with books of short stories rather than a deficiency of the book.
Somewhere inside the jail, only a few feet from us, was the man who had killed him. For a long time there was nothing to be done but stand there in the large silence and the failing light, and know and know the thing we knew. 
This was my Wendell Berry book for 2016 and one I finished just as December was ending. I love reading a little Berry every year, but this book didn't compare to Hannah Coulter for me.

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