Friday, February 13, 2009

Nathan Coulter by Wendell Berry

After reading Hannah Coulter last November, I wanted to read more of Wendell Berry's tales of Port William, Kentucky. Berry's first novel about Port William happens to be about the boyhood of Hannah's second husband, Nathan Coulter, so that seemed like a good place to start since some of the characters were sure to be familiar and it might provide another perspective on Hannah's story.

Quite honestly, I didn't find this novel to have the same charm and wisdom as Hannah Coulter. It is a coming-of-age story that offers insights into family relationships and values in a different time and place, but I really felt that the protagonist is underdeveloped. Like Hannah, Nathan Coulter narrates his own story. But while Hannah shares many of her own thoughts and emotions, Nathan is not so transparent, and it seems that he fades into the background of the story while we discover more about his father, older brother Tom, and Uncle Burley from his observations and comments.

The relationships between the men in this multi-generational family could be case studies in themselves. Uncle Burley is quite the character, and we learn some of the antics of his younger years from a boy's perspective. Perhaps most interesting is Tom's growing distance, first from his brother, as Tom's interests shift as he matures, and then from his father, when a fight pushes him out the door to independence and manhood. Nathan doesn't share nearly so much about his own development - physical, emotional, or otherwise - though his attitudes and observations certainly grow in depth and maturity as his story progresses.

The ideas of place and "the Membership" are not as developed in this novel as in Hannah Coulter. Rather the simple ebb and flow of life, from mundane chores to carnival games to matters of life and death, form the theme and structure of the story. As Uncle Burley observes when an older woman of Port William dies one day and a baby is born to another family the next, ". . .that was just the way things were. They put one in and pull another one out" (35).

I'm sure I will return to Port William every so often in my reading journey, and I'd welcome any suggestions for which story to pick up next. Although I doubt that such a place and time could be wholly recreated in the twenty-first century, there are certainly insights to be gained and lessons to be learned by the people and place Berry has created in Port William.

6 comments:

magistramater said...

I haven't read all the Port William books, but I would recommend you pick up *That Distant Land*, which is a collection of WB short stories (complete at the time of publication). It gives the backstory and context for many of the characters in his novels. There is a story about Burley Coulter that you will never forget.

Carol in Oregon

Laura said...

My favorites thus far have been Jayber Crow and Andy Catlett. Try Andy Catlett as a counterpoint to Nathan Coulter. It's much brighter, but still is told from the viewpoint of a young boy growing up in the Port William area. Of course, Andy's boyhood is about a generation after Nathan's.

I'm trying to work my way through Berry's fiction and have about 4 more to go.

Krakovianka said...

I found the over-arching theme of Nathan Coulter to be death. The first and last chapters deal with the death of a close relative, and everything from trees to barns to fish die in between. As this was my first encounter with Berry, I was rather stunned, but I'm glad I kept going. I've read Jayber Crow and Remembrance since then, and I look forward to reading many more!

Sherry said...

Jayber Crow. I think I liked it and Hannah Coulter the best.

Mindy Withrow said...

Nathan Coulter was my first (and recent) foray into WB's fiction. I wasn't hugely impressed either, but keeping in mind that this was his very first novel and the first intro to the PW membership makes me a bit more interested in reading on and seeing how the community develops and changes. I'm hoping that I grow to appreciate all his fiction more as a whole.

Sondie said...

Thanks for the review...very helpful. I loved Hannah Coulter and have Jayber Crow on my shelf waiting to be read.