Review: Watch With Me

Watch With Me: And Six Other Stories of the YetRemembered Ptolemy Proudfoot and His Wife, Miss Minnie, Née Quinch, Wendell Berry. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2018 (originally published 1994).

Summary: Six short stories and the title novella centered around the Port William resident, Tol Proudfoot and his wife, Miss Minnie and their life on a rural farm, part of the membership of a rural community.

This one had me at the title, both for its length, and the “yet-remembered” part. For Ptolemy “Tol” Proudfoot was a memorable man–a big man of 300 pounds who seemed to be a-bursting out of his clothes, which looked disheveled within minutes of him donning them. He carefully farmed 98 acres, just enough and not two acres more. He was a good judge of horses and all livestock, as well as a good judge of people. Miss Minnie Quinch Proudfoot was as diminutive as Tol was large, but just as impressive. This book of short stories and a novella trace their life together and the lives they touched from the time they began to court until a few years before death parted them.

The first story introduces both of them and tells how Miss Minnie, who had had eyes for him as he for her, consented to let Tol see her home after the Harvest Festival. “A Half-Pint of Old Darling” renders the amusing story of how Miss Minnie, a local temperance movement leader, got pie-eyed drunk on some Old Darling whiskey Tol had bought for his new calves. “The Lost Bet” recounts the time Tol had the last laugh with a store owner who belittled him. Tol was great with livestock and could drive a horse with aplomb, but struggled mightily with his new Model A. “Nearly to the Fair” recounts their attempt to be driven by Elton Penn to the state fair, never quite getting there.

Tol and Miss Minnie never had children and the hospitality they showed to a homeless father and son during the height of the Depression showed the unspoken heartache between them. As the father and son are leaving, Tol half-jokingly says to the man, “We could use a boy like that.” After they left “Tol put on a clean shirt and his jacket, and cap and gloves. Miss Minnie began to clear the table. For the rest of that day, they did not look at one another.” With an economy of words, Berry expresses the bond between them, the diligence of their daily lives, and the unspoken ache they both felt. The last of the short stories recalls a riotous incident from childhood when the family was gathered at Old Ant’ny Proudfoot’s and the boys managed to dump both a cat and a dog down the chimney resulting in all hell breaking loose with the company. Told a few years before his passing with tears of laughter running down his face, “It was Tol’s benediction, as I grew to know, on that expectancy of good and surprising things that had kept Lester’s eyes, and Tol’s too, wide open for so long.”

“Watch With Me,” the final novella is another incident, from 1916, of those “good and surprising things.” Thacker “Nightlife” Hample was prone to spells. Prevented from preaching at the revival at Goforth Church, he comes by Tol’s place, spies an old shotgun that had been loaded to kill a snake, takes it and walks deliberately away, mouthing threats to kill himself. Tol and his nephew Sam and several others follow as a distance, as Nightlife walks on, oblivious of them while they are far from oblivious to the danger of the shotgun. They follow a day and a night, losing him in the woods only to have him come to the fire where they had fallen asleep, uttering Jesus’ words “Couldn’t you stay awake? Couldn’t you stay awake?” He then leaves, taking them in a big circle back to Tol’s workshop. It’s a fine story of human fidelity and frailty–of friends who drop their work to watch their “teched” community member, not sure what they can do, but realizing they needed to be there, even at risk to themselves. That’s what it was to be a “member” of this community.

This is a wonderful collection I never knew existed, introducing me to an older member of Port William. The fine writing says just enough to suggest the things Berry wants us to see–the wonder of marital fidelity with all its flaws, the attentive care to land and crops, and animals, and people that makes for a healthy place, and the laughable incongruities of life. We witness the gentle respect people show for one another’s fallibilities, where people are protected from the worst versions of themselves, offering them space for redemption and growth. Berry makes us long for what was in this fictional town, and what could be in ours. He gently poses the question of us of what it may be to be the Tol, the Miss Minnie to others. We miss what Berry is saying if we only long for the world around us to be like these people and fail to hear the invitation to be like them ourselves.

Review: A World Lost

a world lost

A World Lost, Wendell Berry. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2008. (no publisher’s webpage available)

Summary: Young Andy Catlett’s life is forever changed the day his namesake Uncle Andrew is murdered, an event he spends a lifetime trying to understand.

Andy Catlett is nine years old on the summer day when his adored Uncle Andrew refused to take him on a job salvaging material from an old building. Otherwise it is a perfect day with a satisfying dinner with grandparents, meandering across farm fields, quenching his thirst at a cold spring, watching insects and a world alive, and swimming in a pond to cool off, even though it was forbidden. He arrives home that evening in 1944 to be told by his father that Uncle Andrew had been shot twice by the ill-tempered Carp Harmon. Shortly after he dies.

It is like a long swath of fabric being torn out of a favorite shirt for all of them, never to be repaired. He tells of being with his grandparents and father one night, all of them in tears as they think of what they’ve lost. And shortly after, grandfather dies. Andy’s father no longer plays songs on their piano. We learn how close his disciplined, responsible father came to savage revenge. Something had been snatched out of their world that left it irreparably changed. As the title states, a world lost.

But who was the beloved uncle, brother, son, and why did Carp Harmon kill him? Andy spends the rest of his life trying to understand these things and this novel is his narrative of both discovery and lingering questions. Uncle Andrew was the strong, handsome ladies man who married into the town’s elite, only to live in a loveless marriage with a hypochondriac wife and demanding mother-in-law. He struggled financially, drank too much, and was trying to put his life back together with his brother’s help. This complicated man was the uncle Andy adored.

He interviews witnesses to the murder, reads news stories, and trial records. None of it fully makes sense and often seems contradictory. Even the accounts of whether Uncle Andrew had done anything to provoke the murder conflict. Letters in his father’s effects, shed little more light. It was senseless, as all murder is senseless. He wonders sometimes if things would have been any different had he been with Uncle Andrew that day.

This is the narrative of any family who has suddenly lost someone by violent means. Life may go on but it can never be the same. We discover the complicated mystery of the one we have loved and lost, the shades of light and dark that comprise the portrait of a life, and the ambiguities that fail to resolve. We wrestle with making sense of the senseless–and fail. We carry our own private grief, guilt, perplexity, and trauma, hidden to the world but never far from mind.

Wendell Berry, in his measured way, unfolds this exploration of a world lost in the context of the Port William membership we’ve met in other novels. We have the familiar backdrop of the web of relations and the care of the family farms and the work that must be done that reminds us of the tension of darkness and life within which we live. Berry captures that tension in the narrator’s concluding reflections:

“I imagine the dead waking, dazed, into a shadowless light in which they know themselves altogether for the first time. It is a light that is merciless until they can accept its mercy; by it they are at once condemned and redeemed. It is Hell until it is Heaven. Seeing themselves in that light, if they are willing, they see how far they have failed the only justice of loving one another; it punishes them by their own judgment. And yet, in suffering that light’s awful clarity, in seeing themselves within it, they see its forgiveness and its beauty, and are consoled. In it they are loved completely, even as they have been, and so are changed into what they could not have been but what, if they could have imagined it, they would have wished to be.

“That light can come into this world only as love, and love can enter only by suffering. Not enough light has ever reached us here among the shadows, and yet I think it has never been entirely absent.”