I just finished up with the novel Hannah Coulter, penned by Wendell Berry, and I’ll say it’s been one of my favorite reading experiences of all time.
At 190 pages it’s my kind of book. I’m currently reading Moby Dick, and man, is it a loooong book! Too long. I believe the length actually takes away from the story. But Hannah Coulter is just the right size. I can get my mind and hands around it and savor its contents.
This work reminds me quite a bit of Gilead, written by Marilynne Robinson. Instead of an aged man writing his memoir (Gilead), Hannah Coulter is about an aged woman writing hers. And whereas the reverie of an old man was penned by a woman (Robinson), the reflections of an elderly woman was penned by a man (Wendell Berry). And both do an amazing job of it.
Don’t expect much action here. There isn’t any. It’s 100% character-driven. It’s my favorite type of book. They tend to be slow going, but poetic, and thoughtful. I even like character-driven movies. One of my favorites is Driving Miss Daisy. What a tender-hearted film! Wholesome and nourishing. Gilead was that for me and so is Hannah Coulter. It’s the kind of literature you luxuriate in, ruminate on, mediate on, read and re-read, and walk away a better man.
I think a reason I like character-driven novels is that they pay close attention to people.
I find people fascinating. I love to get inside their brain and figure out what makes them tick. What’s their story, their experience, their personality? Why do they think and act differently than others? Everyone has their reasons. All of that fascinates me. When I see a homeless person I wish I could just go back in time and watch the story of their life unfold. What were their parents like? What was their relationship with them like? How were they described in high school? Oh, to go back in time and see their wedding day. What kind of parents were they? When did things start to go awry? And why did they? How did they respond? How do they survive today (emotionally, mentally)? In their heart of hearts, what do they desire? Who do they miss?
I could ask similar things of ‘successful’ people. Every life has its mountains and valleys.
Another thing that fascinates me is interpersonal relationships. People respond to others differently. Radically differently. Loyalties are formed, misunderstandings are hatched, some people are embraced, while others are ostracized. Relationships are so dynamic and even tenuous. I like to observe them. I love to learn as much as I can about working with people. And character-driven novels tend to provide all that for me. I think I could read Hannah Coulter ten times and come away with new insights on the wily world of people.
This book is about a twice widowed woman reviewing the landscape and people of her life. It is hauntingly good – particularly because its so poetic, pithy, and transporting. He values loyalty, instills wisdom, and inspires grace. Berry is the quintessential storyteller. And I read his fiction with a pen in hand – underlining choice phrases and melodious expression. And the insight that brims from his pages always seems to find its mark.
So far I’ve read Jayber Crow and now Hannah Coutler and both are quite slow reads, but man, are they stimulating.
Proverbs 25:11 says,
A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.
Pick this little book up and enter upon an orchard of golden apples framed in silver.