This week Christian Audio announced that Wendell Berry’s novel Hannah Coulter will be its free download for August. I think that’s a great move, and I’d encourage you to listen or, better yet, to read this book. Those of you who are regulars around these parts know how strongly influenced I am by Mr. Berry. Hannah Coulter, along with Jayber Crow, is among my favorite Berry novels. Here’s why you should read this book.
Some time ago, I critiqued the genre of “Christian romance novels,” and came under a lot of criticism for it (mostly by Christian romance novelists). I was amazed that some of the criticisms attacked me for things that are actually the opposite of what I believe. Some assumed I was saying that fiction was wrong because it’s “not true.” Hardly! I read more fiction than I do non-fiction, if you exempt the Bible from consideration, and I consider it, most often, truer than anything in the world. Some also assumed that I thought one should only write about explicitly Christian themes, and that human love is not worthy of the Christian pen. God forbid.
I think fiction is good, necessary, and God-glorifying. I teach my theology students to read good fiction for the sake of their preaching, if for no other reason. Those without the imagination to read fiction usually lack the imagination to hear the rhythm and contours of Scripture, much less to peer into the mysteries of the human heart. I just think schlocky fiction does just the opposite of all of that. I also think human love is a more than worthy subject of writing, including Christian writing. I just think it should be done with authenticity and honesty, and should look at love, not the hormonal utopia our culture has taught us to long for. I can think of no better contemporary example of doing this well than Hannah Coulter.
This book is a testimony of a woman widowed, twice, once by war. There are several ways the book is counter-cultural in classic Berry style. First of all, the book is indeed a romance, but written from the perspective of a seventy year-old woman. This isn’t the kind of book in which the elderly woman sees her life in the past tense, back there in the romance of youth. No, the novel honors her voice as a real human being, deserving of being heard. She isn’t an “old lady,” but a person whose character deepens as the years go by.
Second, the book roots love in place and community. Again, this is a central emphasis of Berry’s, and it is nowhere clearer than here. So much of our cultural concept of “love” is about the couple alone and their “feelings for one another.” This shows up in the isolated and unhealthy patterns of courtship we see all around us. For Hannah, though, love isn’t simply about her husband and her, and it certainly isn’t about their private emotional world. She reminisces:
“The love he bore to me was his own, but also it was a love that had been borne to him, by people he knew, people I now knew, people he loved. That, I think, is what put tears in his eyes when he looked at me. He must have wondered if I would love those people too. Well, as it turned out, I did. And I would know them as he had never known them, for longer than he knew them. I knew them old, in their final years and days. I know them dead.”
The book also provides beautiful insight into the darker aspects of human existence and, particularly, of what it means to be a man. I find gut-wrenching and convicting Hannah’s comments on her son Caleb who left the farm to pursue a Ph.D. and a career out there in the big world:
“He didn’t love farming enough to be a farmer, much as he loved it, but he loved it too much to be entirely happy doing anything else. He is disappointed in himself. He is regretful in some dark passage of his mind that he thinks only he knows about, but he can’t hide it from his mother. I can see it in his face as plain as writing. There is the same kind of apology in him that you see in some of the sweeter drunks. He is trying to make up the difference between the life he has and the life he imagines he might have had.”
That’s some insight into the human psyche, and it’s written with a biblical sense of poignant longing. It reaches something we often know, but just can’t describe or name. As Hannah puts it, “People know more about each other than what they tell each other.”
True. Read (or listen to) Hannah Coulter. You’ll find yourself in a far distant land, and you’ll long for the distance to close.