Back where C and I did our graduate studies, the name of Wendell Berry was often invoked, at least in some of the circles I ran in.  Despite his ubiquitous presence, I had never read a word by him.  Because of the contexts in which I heard the name, I typically associated him with essays advocating for agrarianism and sustainable agriculture.  I discovered in looking for something by him to read that he is also a novelist, and so I decided to pick up his first novel, Nathan Coulter, because it met one of my requirements (or at least preferences) for reading during the school year: it’s short.

The book is a coming of age tale told from the perspective of the title character.  The Coulters work on a tobacco farm in rural Kentucky, and their life evinces the joys, fears, and tensions that mark most families.  Early on in the story, Nathan and his brother (whom he normally refers to as “Brother” rather than his name “Tom”) lose their mother to an illness.  Because their father can’t raise them and till the land on his own, they move to the next farm over to live with their grandparents and uncle.  The story develops a number of themes, but the one that struck me was that of Nathan’s continually changing relationships with each of his family members, as well as the inner dynamics of the Coulter family in general.  These dynamics strain under the difficulties most families face: sibling rivalry, the desire to strike out on one’s own, transitions, death.  Through it all Nathan learns how much his family means to him, as well as the fragility of day-to-day life.

For the first chapter or so, I had a hard time getting into the novel, perhaps because it was somewhat foreign to my experience.  A product of late twentieth century suburbia, I initially had a hard time relating to the rural way of life Berry describes.  But gradually he won me over.  His writing style has an elegant simplicity that reflects the pace and values of a simpler time.  Moreover, at points Berry writes with poignancy about the difficulty of moving on.  One paragraph toward the end of the story particularly moved me.  Upon realizing that Brother has left for good and will not be coming home to stay, Nathan reflects:

“I could have cried myself.  Brother was gone, and he wouldn’t be back.  And things that had been so before never would be so again.  We were the way we were; nothing could make us any different, and we suffered because of it.  Things happened to us the way they did because we were ourselves.  And if we’d been other people it wouldn’t have mattered… we’d have had to suffer whatever it was that they suffered because they were themselves.  And there was nothing anybody could do but let it happen.”

Despite the somewhat depressing tone of this passage, Berry also highlights the simple joys of time with family, but almost always with a reminder of their fleetingness.  I suppose what I took away from the book is the importance of savoring precious moments with friends and family, because before we know it, they’ll be gone.  Not a bad reminder.

Eight down, (at least) forty-four to go.