Summer ends tomorrow, and just in time I finished my last summer novel, Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry. I was turned on to reading Berry by my Cornerstone colleagues, and I’m glad I did. Like Garrison Keillor and his fictional town of Lake Woebegone, Berry has constructed an entire world centered around the farms of Port William, Kentucky. He writes stories from the perspectives of the various individuals of the town, such as Jayber Crow and Nathan Coulter, and I think Hannah Coulter is his best.
Hannah is a young widow who remarries, raises a blended family, and then sees her children grow up, go to college, and move off the farm. Along the way she shares her observations, joys, and frustrations with life, so that this book provides a penetrating window into the human spirit. As with all of Berry’s books, this novel is an argument to slow down and savor the simple things of life, for often less really is more.
I think any pastor would benefit from reading this story, especially those who shepherd small churches. This book will be an encouraging reminder that the fullest lives are not those found in large, faceless corporations (churches can feel this way too) but in the small communities where people feel free to drop in, inconvenience each other, and know that they matter to somebody. And if you can read the entire thing without crying, then you have no business being a pastor.
There are so many interesting and helpful lines in the book, but here are a few (I realize that context would be helpful, but here they are):
“A man’s desire is the most flattering mirror a woman ever stands before, and she wants to see herself shining in it” (p. 142).
“After a minute he said, ‘Dear Hannah, I’m going to live right on. Dying is none of my business. Dying will have to take care of itself’” (p. 161).
“We weren’t allowing our hopes to become expectations. Expectations are tempting, pleasant, maybe necessary. They are scary too, once you have had some experience. They are not necessarily and not always a bucket of smoke, but they can be and are even likely to be. A lot depends on keeping the prospect open. For Virgie, the prospect, at least in this direction, began to close before he was born” (p. 139).
“After [the children] all were gone, I was mourning over them to Nathan. I said, ‘I just wanted them to have a better chance than I had.’ Nathan said, ‘Don’t complain about the chance you had’….Like several of his one-sentence conversations, this one stuck in my mind and finally changed it….
Was I sorry that…I had married Virgil and come to live in Port William, and that I had lived on after Virgil’s death to marry Nathan and come to our place to raise our family and live among the Coulters and the rest of our membership?
Well, that was the chance I had.
And so Nathan required me to think a thought that has stayed with me a long time and has traveled a long way. It passed through everything I know and changed it all. The chance you had is the life you’ve got. You can make complaints…but you mustn’t wish for another life. You mustn’t want to be somebody else” (p. 112-13).