Review: That Distant Land

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.

Review: The Memory of Old Jack

The Memory of Old Jack, Wendell Berry. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 1999 (Originally published 1974).

Summary: Old Jack Beechum, the oldest of the Port William membership, spends a September day remembering his life.

This book resonated powerfully with me. It brought to mind my father’s last years after my mother passed. His short term memory was failing even as he grew more frail. Mostly he spent his days remembering what he could, the earlier days of his life, summing up in a sense what his life had meant. From our conversations, these were grace-filled memories, and there was about him a profound sense of thanksgiving. He was already at peace about his life well before we laid him to rest.

As the title of this work suggests, this is also an account of remembering and summing up a life. On one hand, it is a narrative of a single sunny day in September. It is also a day of remembering the most significant events in his life. Early morning, old Jack Beechum stands on the hotel porch where he now lives, listening to the sounds of the men going about their chores and a day of tobacco harvesting. He hears Mat Feltner, a man in his sixties, an anchor of the community, and recalls him as a boy with his father Ben as he hitches up his new mule team. He recalls Ben Feltner, the loan Ben had fronted him, and the mentor he had been in the care of his land when he was bereft of his own parents and starting out.

His wife Ruth occupies many of his memories. Her beauty which led him to pursue her. Her ambitions, which led him both into debt, and a falling out with the tenant of an adjacent farm he bought, Will Wells. Ruth wanted him to be a prosperous landowner with many others working for him. He wanted to care for and lovingly restore the land he had, that his father had so neglected.

He remembers the crucible through which he went. Selling the adjacent farm at a loss, Ruth’s increasing estrangement, and the fire in his barn and more loss and debt, and the years of extra work to own his land free and clear. He goes through a kind of death returning from a fruitless errand for Ruth to get caught in a flood, barely surviving with his team, cutting loose his wagon.

After Ruth’s daughter Clara was born, Ruth insisted they sleep apart. What followed was an affair with the doctor’s widow, Rose McInnis, each meeting the hunger in the other. There came the day when a question from Ruth revealed she knew and he knew “the wound he had given her.” Shortly after, Jack returns from a trip to learn Rose had perished in a fire. All he has left is his land, on which at 48, he had paid off the mortgage–and a renewed sense of his own life:

That his life was renewed, that he had been driven down to the bedrock of his own place in the world, and his own truth and had stood again, that a profound peace and trust had come to him out of his suffering and his solitude, and that this peace would abide with him to the end of his days–all this he knew in the quiet of his heart and kept to himself.

He had come through his own valley of the shadow of death. Eventually there is one with whom he shares what he has learned–Mat Feltner, now what he once was to Mat’s father Ben. Pointing to Mat’s land, he says, “That’s all you’ve got, Mat. It’s your only choice. It’s all you can have; whatever you try to gain somewhere else, you’ll lose here.”

Sadly, his own daughter will not understand what Mat and the circle around him–Nathan and Hannah Coulter, Burley Coulter, and the tenant who cares for his farm, Elton Penn–understand. Clara followed her mother’s ways, marrying a banker, who refused an opportunity to buy an adjacent farm, that one day could be joined to Jack’s own. Clara even took dying Ruth, whose last words to Jack are “Bless you, Jack, good-by.” Jack continues as long as he can alone until he moves into the hotel.

Just before dinner on that September day, young Andy Catlett stops by to say good-bye. Andy is headed off to college, yet loves the land as he does. There is a fitting closure here, of love and fealty on Andy’s part, of blessing of the young man. It seems each knows they will not see the other again.

There is exquisite writing throughout here, and none more than in the chapter “Return.” Everything Berry writes reflects love of land, of place, of animals well-cared for, and a community that shares these values. In this work, these become the source of renewal for Old Jack, a kind of “pearl of great price.” The theme of mentors, from one generation to the next, runs through this work. There is a company of men who not only work alongside and impart wisdom, but who affirm one another’s worth and dignity. It is striking how Mat honors Old Jack when he is long past being any “use” even as Jack had honored him. Finally there is the forging of character in Jack, from the proud young man who marries a kind of “trophy” wife only to discover that he cannot live up to her expectations, to the humbled man, reckoning with all his errors, doing what he can to make amends, even with Ruth, and in the process not only becomes himself, but a model to others.

Berry reminds us that unless death comes suddenly, there will come the time of summing up, of remembering. What will we remember, and will we have found the peace that abides to the end of our days? He reminds me that it is never too soon to address oneself to these questions.

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.”