Do you ever think about how your own, personal context affects your response to a book you have read?
A book which didn't interest you ten years ago, before you experienced that particular loss, may completely engage you today. Conversely, a book which kidnapped you twenty years ago, rendering you incapacitated for all but the most necessary life functions until you finished the book, may produce yawns of indifference if you were to pick it up today.
My context in reading Wendell Berry includes many conversations with friends and family about an agrarian lifestyle and end-of-life medical issues. It most definitely includes The Omnivore's Dilemma
, a book which has had an impact on our family's thinking. My point is that I'm in step with some of the messages Berry is delivering, which makes him that more dear to me.
Also, I am so grateful for the order in which I've read Wendell Berry's fiction. I believe it has made a difference. I started with That Distant Land: The Collected Stories
, which introduced me to the primary residents in Berry's fictional town of Port William, Kentucky. I learned the back story of so many families. Reading this first provided the context into which all the other books fit.
Remembering follows the course of one day in Andy Catlett's life. There's not much action: he takes a walk, he gives a speech, he gets on a plane and comes home. Interspersed in the narrative are remembrances of the people who formed and molded Andy, contemplations on the twists and turns his life has taken. As in most everything Berry writes, there is a focus not on what we have gained with technology, but what we have lost. Farming methods are especially important.
What I love about Wendell Berry's fiction:
1. Sense of community. Berry loves the word "membership" as a sense of people belonging to one another. No one is done harvesting until everyone's harvest is in. Working, joking, relaxing, eating are all communal activities. There is a connectedness that is often missing in other fiction. "How long have you been here?" "Seventy-four years." "But you're not seventy-four?" "No," Isaac said, and laughed, "my father is seventy-four. We came here the year he was born." [I think that We is profound.]
2. Realistic characters. Berry's protagonists--strong, masculine men and stalwart women--are never perfect. Nathan Coulter is a tireless worker, but he is impatient. Loveable Burley Coulter will charm you, but avoids making commitments.
3. Descriptions of sex. Got your attention, eh? When Wendell Berry writes about sex, it is appropriate, achingly beautiful and sparse. My single friend pointed this out to me. "But to know you love somebody, and to feel his desire falling over you like a warm rain, touching you everywhere, is to have a kind of light." "He would come to me as my guest, and I would be his welcomer." "His hand knew her as a man knows his homeland."
4. Biblical concepts naturally integrated into prose. As a pastor's daughter, I grew up reading and listening to stories which had an obligatory gospel message tacked on to the last chapter. That is where I stopped reading. Not because I hated the gospel, but because it was artless. Berry's biblical allusions abound, but they are often so subtle I don't catch them until the second or third reading. "I thought of all the times I'd worked in that field, hurrying to get through, to get to a better place, and it had been there all the time. I can't say I've always lived by what I learned that day-I wish I had-but I've never forgot." "What?" Andy says. "That it was there all the time." "What?" "Redemption," Mat says, and laughs. "A little flowing stream."
5. A sense of place. This is what most reviewers mention first. Respect for the land, ties to the land, geography all matter very much to Mr. Berry. " In the sweet by and by, We shall meet on that beautiful shore. We all know what that beautiful shore is. It is Port William with all its loved ones come home alive."
6. Turns of phrase. Wendell Berry is a master wordsmith. When Andy met his wife to be: "He can see nothing wrong with her. She has closed entirely the little assayer's office that he runs in his mind." "...observing scrupulously the etiquette of strangers" An airplane engine: "a ludicrous hooferaw of noise and fire"
More of my thoughts on Wendell Berry.