Art & Beauty

    Hannah Coulter, Death, and Community

    Dear friends. It’s been a little while since I typed and published a post. Life has been a hazy cloud with finals, other writing projects (submitting articles and becoming an editor at Polyphony Lit), and the continual struggles of being human. However, as I can now revel in the freedom we call “summer break,” I decided to type up a post/update of what’s been on my mind lately. Hope you are well and hope you enjoy, kindred spirits!

    I love how this photo captures the toil of farm work but also radiates the warmth of companionship. 🙂

    Recently, I finished a novel by Wendell Berry called Hannah Coulter. It was a tale of grief, the solace of community, and the depths of love. The story is told in retrospect by Hannah Coulter, a simple farmwife with a rich interior world, as she reflects back on her quiet life in the fictional town of Port William, Kentucky. With a life marked by loss, Hannah casts the effect of World War II in a new light. She reveals her wrestle with grief but also her encounter with goodness and the small treasures her life has harvested. Although the novel’s pace is slow at times and the plot not exactly “gripping,” Hannah Coulter reveals the joys and toils of the fading agricultural community, and Berry’s raw revelations about love and grief touch the soul of humanity. What captivated me the most about this novel was her journey of grief and the solace she found in “the membership,” the community she was a part of, in times of war and death.

    Shaped by a difficult childhood (an absent father and a bitter stepmother) and a loving grandmother, Hannah enters adulthood with few prospects and fewer friends. However, owing to her grandmother, she finds a job as a secretary in the town of Port William and, not long after, finds love. Shortly after Hannah and her first husband, Virgil, are married, World War II sweeps Virgil into unknown shadows and dark plains. This is a period of apprehension and sorrow all over America. Even in the rural community of Kentucky, the shadow of war is felt. The presence of war is not physical; rather, it epitomizes in the absence of husbands, fathers, brothers, and friends. Even the children feel the transience of Christmas day, a joyful day shared with the soldiers during their two-week break, understanding “that what [they] were that day was lovely and could not last.”

    Yet, even in the midst of this national anguish, the community of Port William continues. They carry on with their mundane tasks, carrying grief within them but finding support in each other. Every time the news of a loss is announced, Hannah faces the relief that they were not addressed to her but the fear “that the worst possibilities were real, for [her] as for others.”

    And the dark possibility did, in the end, occur. Virgil went missing in action.

    In the chapters covering Hannah’s grief, Wendell Berry punctures the truth of sorrow. Hannah’s words are raw and tender as she describes grief:

    “Grief is not a force and has no power to hold. You only bear it. Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches on a piece of embroidery.”

    Hannah depicts grief as “dark,” dark like a velvet piece of embroidery. But love is, as she says, the golden stitches on a piece of embroidery. Love is, as she later muses, a house, “a great room with many doors.” It is large enough to contain the whole world but small enough to dwell in her heart. When she fell in love with Virgil, she fell in love with his family, his place, and the community.

    Margaret, her first child, came into the world at the peak of her grief. She was what drew Hannah out of it. Hannah, Virgil’s family, the community needed the child. She brought life in a time where death shadowed Port William. She called Hannah back into “the room,” back into the light of life.

    Through the first few months with her newborn, Hannah wrestles with the meaning of Virgil’s death. She does not want his death to become an emblem of government property; she does not want it made “official.” For, in her eyes, “[the soldiers’] lives made the meaning of their deaths.” This notion of death in the modern world appears again in the final chapters of the novel. Having little to no knowledge of what World War II was like for the soldiers, as individuals rarely discussed the subject in Port William, Hannah endeavors to find out through research. She stumbles across a horrific but realistic description of the “Battle of Okinawa.” What it was before, and what it was after. In a time where a pandemic, a viral alternative to World War II, tears across our world, Hannah’s words and thoughts in this chapter deeply resonated with me. As she read through the terrors that took place on that battlefield, a poignant realization hit her: Okinawa was a place people loved. Like Port William, people gathered in a community to cultivate, harvest, and cherish the land. “The people,” she writes, “made beautiful things with their hands.” Though “it was their own place… the war had made it wrong.”

    With the number of deaths growing by the day, it can be easy to become numb to their significance. People are no more numbers, homes no more than settings of war. Yet, Hannah puts a face to the dead. She reminds us that these are real people, people who love their home, people who “make beautiful things with their hands.” While the world wraps death in numbers, Hannah wraps death in humanity.

    Because of the wealth of wisdom in Hannah Coulter, I spend ages writing about this novel. Hannah is a stalwart, beautiful soul who has a led a simple but impactful life in an age of deep brokenness. I hope to reflect her grace in the way that I approach my relationships, my passions, and the sorrows of this world. All that to say, I highly recommend this novel; it is, to use a cliché word, life-changing.


    Have you read Hannah Coulter? If so, what are your thoughts regarding this novel? How do you find beauty in a world marked by death? Would you like me to post a “Part 2” with more Hannah Coulter thoughts?

    Let me know in the comment section below. I love to hear from you! And, as always, if you enjoy my posts, consider subscribing to this blog. 🙂


    Yours truly,

    Abigail

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