That Distant Land, Wendell Berry. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2004.
Summary: A collection of short stories about the Port William membership not part of the longer novels.
If you’ve read a number of the fictional short stories of Wendell Berry, it is likely that you have encountered some of the stories in this collection. Stories from three earlier publications are represented here, although some differ slightly in the telling: The Wild Birds, Fidelity, and Watch with Me. I didn’t mind, though. It was delightful to revisit the courtship of Ptolemy Proudfoot and Minnie Quinch, to chuckle when the temperate Minnie determines to “dispose” of the half-pint of Old Darling Ptolemy had bought for lambing, or feel a sense of vindication when Ptolemy reveals he is far from the country bumpkin and gets the last laugh in “The Lost Bet.”
Two of the stories from Fidelity were a particular joy, both involving the lawyer Wheeler Catlett, who worked as hard to preserve the membership as any in Port William. The title work, “That Distant Land” conveys the bittersweet reflections also found in “The Wild Birds” at the losses to modernity Port William has suffered but also his dawning realization that the illegitimate son of Burley Coulter, who Burley wants to inherit his land is also part of that membership, not only by birth but through his care of the land in the company of Burley and others of the membership. “Fidelity,” I think is simply one of the greatest pieces of short story fiction. Danny “rescues” (or kidnaps, in the eyes of the law) Burley from the hospital where he is being kept alive on life support which is merely prolonging his dying at great expense. This was before the hospice movement, and the recognition of how providing a dignified dying in a familiar place is indeed fidelity to the dying. The beauty of what Danny does (not euthanasia but simply allowing Burley a natural death) and the way the membership stands together to protect him from the legal ramifications is both consummate storytelling and thought provoking.
There were several stories I hadn’t read before that I savored. “Making It Home” tells the story of Art Rowanberry’s military service, his recovery from the physical wounds and the mental ones that remain, as he walks home through countryside once again familiar, making it in time for dinner. “The Discovery of Kentucky” is one of those wisdom tales that shows how pompous pretensions can go sideways at the inaugural parade when a float to commemorate Kentucky is manned by Burley and his friends, when best-laid plans go awry and when the float sponsor totally fails to realize how the sign he has posted will be read in light of everything else. “The Inheritors,” which closes out the collection describes one of the final encounters between Wheeler Catlett and Danny Branch. Wheeler, who is slowly failing of body and mind, persuades Danny to drive him to a stock sale and then subjects Danny to a hair-raising drive home on the wrong side of the Interstate. Through it all, one senses an intimacy between the two, a passing of the baton and a blessing as Wheeler comes to the point of relinquishing his membership as Danny fully takes it up.
This is a fantastic collection of 23 of Berry’s Port William short stories, the best thing to read if you haven’t read any of the other works represented here. The arrangement of the stories is chronological and tells the story of a community over nearly a hundred year period. The book also includes a detailed map of Port William and a family tree of the Beechum, Feltner, and Coulter family lines. This is a great accompaniment to the Port William novels, which are indicated chronologically in the table of contents. All told, this work is one more reminder of the great contribution Mr. Berry has made to American literature.