Here’s the sad thing: 90% of me loved Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry for 166 out of 186 pages. Sure, I had my persnickety criticisms and misgivings. The author- a man- was less than credible as the main voice- a woman- in the book. This is actually the #1 criticism I heard from friends in response to my overwhelming praise, and I totally agree.
Secondly, there are certain lovely passages that could benefit from a lighter touch as far as feelings and themes are concerned. Sometimes I wanted to say, “We get it. Love is a room and they’re entering into it together by grace. We don’t actually need to hear this over and over again.” See, I told you. It’s a persnickety criticism.
But on page 166 I reached the chapter, “Okinawa”. This chapter was a hard-hitting and thought-provoking essay from Wendell Berry on the nature of war. I would have been happy to read it, but it needed to die on the cutting room floor of this novel and make its way to a non-fiction collection. To cram it into Hannah Coulter was sort of a literary tragedy.
All these things aside, I still wholeheartedly recommend this book. It has more to say about the nature of community, tradition, and grief than any other book I’ve read. Hannah Coulter, in its best moments, makes me question my ideas of parenting, marriage, and membership in all the loveliest ways. It makes me want to dig deeply into the heartfelt sorrows and joys that this life has to give, and to leave “openhanded, with only the ancient blessing, ‘Good-bye. My love to you all.'”
If the Okinawa chapter were cut as it should’ve been, I could see granting this book 4/5 stars. As is, as of course it must be taken, I give 3.5/5 stars. Grab some friends to read this book together and talk about what it means to stay in one place, raise a family, live a full and good life. You’ll probably also want to start a garden.
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