Hannah Coulter is Wendell Berry’s seventh novel and his first to employ the voice of a woman character in its telling. Hannah, the now–elderly narrator, recounts the love she has for the land and for her community. She remembers each of her two husbands, and all places and community connections threatened by twentieth–century technologies. At risk is the whole culture of family farming, hope redeemed when her wayward and once lost grandson, Virgil, returns to his rural home place to work the farm.
"This is the story of my life, that while I lived it weighed upon me and pressed against me and filled all my senses to overflowing and now is like a dream dreamed.... This is my story, my giving of thanks." So begin the reflections of Hannah Coulter, the twice-widowed protagonist of this slim, incandescent novel in Berry's Port William series. In 1940, the precocious, innocent Hannah leaves her small Kentucky farming town to work as a secretary in nearby Hargrave, where she meets Virgil Feltner, seven years her senior, who gently courts her. They marry and have a daughter, but Virgil, "called to the army in 1942," dies in the Battle of the Bulge. Love follows mourning, as a kind but driven farmer, Nathan Coulter, returns from combat and woos Hannah. In delicate, shimmering prose, Berry tracks Hannah's loves and losses through the novel's first half; the narrative sharpens as Hannah recounts her children's lives Margaret becomes a schoolteacher with a troubled son; Mattie ("a little too eager to climb Fool's Hill") flees rural life to become a globe-trotting communication executive; Caleb, Nathan's hope to run the family farm, becomes a professor of agriculture instead. Beneath the story of ordinary lives lies the work of an extraordinarily wise novelist: as Hannah relates her children's fate to her own deeply rooted rural background, she weaves landscape and family and history together ("My mind... is close to being the room of love where the absent are present, the dead are alive, time is eternal and all creatures prosperous"). Her compassion enlivens every page of this small, graceful novel.