Book Review: Hannah Coulter

Well, last week contained the elements of a perfect vacation for me: good books to read, sunshine, water, and a lounge chair. I read two books start to finish and started a third, so I thought I'd share a little review of each with you.
My first selection was

Hannah Coulter
by Wendell Berry.

(Disclosure: I'm an Amazon Associate, all opinions are my own, blah blah blah.)

This was the first novel by Berry that I'd ever picked up, and I'll definitely be going back for more. Berry is a modern author who is creating quality literature in a pop-culture world where truly good storytelling is becoming a lost art. Hannah Coulter is a love story, but you won't find any cheese-ball sparkling vampires or thinly-veiled pornographic descriptions pandering to raging teenage hormones here (thank goodness).

No, this is the story of a life well-lived, a member of the Greatest Generation reflecting on her life, loves (she has been widowed twice, once by war, once by cancer and age), and community. The plot isn't terribly exciting, but it doesn't need to be: the beauty of the language and the wisdom she shares is what carries this book. It's hard to put down.

Rather than going into a long, rambling attempt at a plot synopsis, I think I'll just let Hannah speak for herself. If you don't want any spoilers, you may just want to go pick up the book and start reading it now. Otherwise, here are some of my favorite quotes centered on the major themes of the novel….
On love, marriage, and sticking it out "for better or for worse":

"Sometimes too I could see that love is a great room with a lot of doors, where we are invited to knock and come in. Though it contains all the world, the sun, moon, and stars, it is so small as to be also in our hearts. It is in the hearts of those who choose to come in. Some do not come in. Some may stay out forever. Some come in together and leave separately. Some come in and stay, until they die, and after."

"You have had this life and no other. You have had this life with this man and no other. What would it have been to have had a different life with a different man? You will never know. That makes the world forever a mystery, and you will just have to be content for it to be that way. We quarreled because we loved each other, I have no doubt of that. We were trying to become somehow the same person, one flesh, and we often failed. When distance came between us, we would blame it on each other. And here is a wonder. I maybe never loved him so much or yearned toward him so much as when I was mad at him. It's not a simple thing, this love."

"You can't give yourself over to love for somebody without giving yourself over to suffering. You can't give yourself to love for a soldier without giving yourself to his suffering in war. It is this body of our suffering that Christ was born into, to suffer it Himself and to fill it with light, so that beyond the suffering we can imagine Easter morning and the peace of God on little earthly homelands such as Port William and the farming villages of Okinawa."

On a son-in-law's infidelity:

"So how come he ended up leaving his wife and boy, talking about 'fulfillment' and his 'need to be free'? 'It's the time,' I thought. 'The time wants men to be as silly in character as they are by nature.'"

"It would have been better for Marcus if he had been tireder at night."

On family and community, or "membership," as one character charmingly calls it:

"Grandmam came back from that distance in time that separates grandmothers from their grandchildren and made herself a mother to me."

"The love he bore to me was his own, but also it was a love that had been borne to him, by people he knew, people I now knew, people he loved. That, I think, was what put tears in his eyes when he looked at me. He must have wondered if I would love those people too. Well, as it turned out, I did. And I would know them as he would never know them, for longer than he knew them. I knew them old, in their final years and days. I know them dead."

"Danny gave the same watchful friendliness to Nathan. Heaven will have to pay our debt to them. They have made me glad I have stayed alive, as Burley Coulter used to say."

"When you have gone too far, as I think he did, the only mending is to come home. Whether he is equal to it or not, this is his chance."

On the horrors of war:

"Counting noses, Bess missed Andy and went to look for him. She found him finally in the dining room, in the corner at the end of the sideboard, crying. The knowledge of it passed over us all. He didn't know, as we grownups knew, what the war meant and might mean. He had only understood that what we were that day was lovely and could not last."

"Some of them were heroes. And they said not a word. They stood among us like monuments without inscriptions. They said nothing or said little because we have barely a language for what they knew, and they could not bear the pain of talking of their knowledge in even so poor a language as we have. They knew the torment of the whole world at war, that nobody could make or end or escape alone, in which everybody suffered alone. As many who have known it have said of it, war is Hell. It is the outer darkness beyond the reach of love, where people who do not know one another kill one another and there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, where nothing is allowed to be real enough to be spared."

On the marching on of time, and the need for the living to "live right on":

"Time doesn't stop. Your life doesn't stop and wait until you get ready to start living it."

"The living can't quit living because the world has turned terrible and people they love and need are killed. They can't because they don't. The light that shines in darkness and never goes out calls them on into life. It calls them back again into the great room. It calls them into their bodies and into the world, into whatever the world will require. It calls them into work and pleasure, goodness and beauty, and the company of other loved ones."

On kindness and forgiveness:

"Kindness kept us alive. It made us think of each other."

"And then I was aware that an old woman whose head hardly came to my shoulder was standing beside me. She was wearing a head scarf and a dress that hung on her as it would have hung on a chair. She was shrunken and twisted by arthritis and was leaning on two canes. Her hands were so knotted as hardly to look like hands. She was smiling at me. She said, 'You don't know me, do you?' I knew her then, and almost instantly there were tears on my face. I started feeling in my purse for a handkerchief and tried to be able to say something. All kinds of knowledge came to me, all in a sort of flare in my mind. I knew for one thing that she was more simpleminded than I had ever thought. She had perfectly forgot, or had never known, how much and how justly I had resented her. But I knew at that same instant that my resentment was gone, just gone. And the fear of her that was once so big in me, where was it? And who was this poor sufferer who stood there with me? 'Yes, Ivy, I know you,' I said, and I sounded kind. I didn't understand exactly what had happened until the thought of her woke me up in the middle of that night, and I was saying to myself, 'You have forgiven her.' I had. My old hatred and contempt and fear, that I had kept so carefully so long, were gone, and I was free."

On thankfulness:

"And so I have to say that another of the golden threads is gratitude. All through that bad time, when Virgil's absence was wearing itself into us, when 'missing' kept renaming itself more and more insistently as 'dead' and 'lost forever,' I was yet grateful. Sometimes I was grateful because I knew I ought to be, sometimes because I wanted to be, and sometimes a sweet thankfulness came to me on its own, like a singing from somewhere out in the dark. I was grateful because I knew, even in my fear and grief, that my life had been filled with gifts."

"And so an old woman, sitting by the fire, waiting for sleep, makes her reckoning, naming over the names of the dead and the living, which also are the names of her gratitude. What will be remembered, Andy Catlett, when we are gone? What will finally become of this lineage of people who have been members one of another? I don't know. And yet their names and their faces, what they did and said, are not gone, are not 'the past,' but still are present to me, and I give thanks."

"And so you have a life that you are living only now, now and now and now, gone before you can speak of it, and you must be thankful for living day by day, moment by moment, in this presence."

On the advantages of being content in the simple things and the life and work you have, and the dangers of yearning for something "better":

"Most people now are looking for 'a better place,' which means that a lot of them will end up in a worse one. I think this is what Nathan learned from his time in the army and the war. He saw a lot of places, and he came home. I think he gave up on the idea that there is a better place somewhere else. There is no 'better place' than this, not in this world. And it is by the place we've got, and our love for it and our keeping of it, that this world is joined to Heaven."

"We lived here by our work. Our life and our work were not the same thing maybe, but they were close."

"But it was true. After they 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,' in the same way exactly that he used to tell the boys, 'Don't cuss the weather.' Sometimes you can say dreadful things without knowing it. Nathan understood this better than I did. Like several of his one-sentence conversations, this one stuck in my mind and finally changed it. The change came too late, maybe, but it turned my mind inside out like a sock. Was I sorry that I had known my parents and Grandmam and Ora Finley and the Catletts and the Feltners, and 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 about what people, including you, make of their lives after they have got them, and about what people make of other people's lives, even about your children being gone, but you mustn't wish for another life. You mustn't want to be somebody else. What you must do is this: 'Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks.' I am not all the way capable of so much, but those are the right instructions."

"Suppose your stories, instead of mourning and rejoicing over the past, say that everything should have been different. Suppose you encourage or even just allow your children to believe that their parents ought to have been different people, with a better chance, born in a better place. Or suppose the stories you tell them allow them to believe, when they hear it from other people, that farming people are inferior and need to improve themselves by leaving the farm. Doesn't that finally unmake everything that has been made? Isn't that the loose thread that unravels the whole garment? And how are you ever going to know where the thread breaks, and when the tug begins?"
"The old thrift that once kept us alive has been replaced by extravagance and waste. People are living as if they think they are in a movie. They are all looking in one direction, toward 'a better place,' and what they see is no thicker than a screen."

And, finally, just a couple of lines that made me smile:

"As trees go, I would say they are getting about old enough to vote."

"I was idling along with my stick, recognizing the trees and wishing them well."


As I'm sure you've gathered by now, this is a book well worth reading. It's like sitting on the back porch with your grandmother, shelling beans and listening to the story of her life and the wisdom she's picked up along the way. So pick up a copy and get to know Hannah yourself, and be sure to grab a tissue too – you're going to need it.
That's all for today…

I'll be back next week with my review of my other beach read:
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan.

What are you reading?


  1. This sounds like a book I'd enjoy reading. I've put in on my Amazon wish list. Thank you for this "review", I'm glad I read it.

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed the review, and I hope you like the book! I certainly did.... such wonderful writing! Thanks for stopping by...


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