I recently received a review copy of Wendell Berry and the Cultivation of Life: A Reader’s Guide by Matthew J. Bonzo and Michael R. Stevens, Brazos Press. Dipping into it has piqued my interest in Berry’s novels, as I’ve only been reading his essays and poetry up to this point. I checked out a copy of Three Short Novels [Nathan Coulter, Remembering, A World Lost]. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 2002.] from my local library and went to work on Nathan Coulter.
In a word it is delightful. It’s his first book and I’m reading it slowly every night, allowing its lessons to soak in. I say lessons, and this sounds odd because the story is told by a boy who is himself ever perceiving and is only so self aware, but the way he sees his father, Grandfather, brother and uncle are so rooted in longing for more. Everything is broken in a way: the land, the work, and the heritage. I read portions aloud for my wife hoping she’ll find them funny, but she remarks that they are sad. And it doesn’t occur to me that the cruelty to birds (a blasting cap in a pet crow’s bung-hole, ducks tied to rocks at a carnival and forced to “duck”) or fish (dynamited out of the stream) is sad. I feel a kinship with the character’s outrageous antics for something to do.
What I appreciate most of all is the sense of place in this story. The tragic and broken and sympathetic and wonderful are all woven together into one simple place with so much attention to detail that I really care about this world. The book teaches me that with story it’s far less about what happens than about what it looks like. The why always follows the where, and sometimes there is no why and that’s okay.
If, like me, you’re traversing the world of Wendell Berry for the first time you must see the Mr. Wendell Berry of Kentucky pages. One visit there and you’ll feel ever the neophyte, but we must start somewhere right? Of particular help is The Port William Membership page, a geneology of sorts for all the families in Berry’s books.