If I had to pick my favorite fictional book, it would be a neck and neck finish between two Wendell Berry novels. It might depend on which I read most recently. But the two finalists would be Jayber Crow and Hannah Coulter.
Though both are characters set in Berry’s fictional town of Port William around the same time, and though they contain similar themes (time, history, gratitude, remembering, belonging, heaven and earth, change) they are also very different. Jayber’s story is that of an orphan and bachelor who nonetheless finds family multiple times throughout his pilgrimage. In one sense, it’s a story of absence, and yet how a people and place fill up the absence. Hannah’s story is that of a widow of war who is loved by two families. It’s a story of grief and loss for what is taken, and yet also gratitude and joy for all that’s given.
Both are beautiful.
And both are hard to describe and capture in a series of quotes. Berry’s fiction is slow-moving (especially the first part of Jayber Crow) and centered around characters, relationships, the town, and all the stories of those people in that place. You can’t really capture how wonderful a character in a book is or how well a theme is illustrated or a story within a story is told through quotes, so while these quotes can’t do justice to the book, they do summarize a few of my favorite sentences and paragraphs. (You can also read my favorite quotes from Hannah Coulter.)
“You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out—perhaps a little at a time.” (4)
“Perhaps all the good that has ever come here has come because people prayed it into the world.” (253)
“But faith is not necessarily, or not soon, a resting place. Faith puts you out on a wide river in a little boat, in the fog, in the dark. Even a man of faith knows that (as Burley Coulter used to say) we’ve all got to go through enough to kill us.” (356)
“That is to say that I know I’ve been lucky. Beyond that, the question is if I have not also been blessed, as I believe I have…” (66)
“Back there at the beginning [of my life], as I see now, my life was all time and almost no memory…. And now, nearing the end, I see that my life is almost entirely memory and very little time.” (24)
“What I saw now was the community imperfect and irresolute and yet ever-holding bonds of the various sorts of affection. There had maybe never been anybody who had not been loved by somebody, who had been loved by somebody else, and so on and on.…this was a membership; it was the membership of Port William and of no other place on earth.” (203)
“There are moments when the heart is generous, and then it knows that for better or worse our lives are woven together here, one with another and with the place and all the living things.” (210)
“If you could do it, I suppose, it would be a good idea to live your life in a straight line – starting, say, in the Dark Wood of Error, and proceeding by logical steps through Hell and Purgatory and into Heaven. Or you could take the King’s Highway past the appropriately named dangers, toils, and snares, and finally cross the River of Death and enter the Celestial City. But that is not the way I have done it, so far. I am a pilgrim, but my pilgrimage has been wandering and unmarked. Often what has looked like a straight line to me has been a circling or a doubling back. I have been in the Dark Wood of Error any number of times. I have known something of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, but not always in that order. The names of many snares and dangers have been made known to me, but I have seen them only in looking back. Often I have not known where I was going until I was already there. I have had my share of desires and goals, but my life has come to me or I have gone to it mainly by way of mistakes and surprises. Often I have received better than I deserved. Often my fairest hopes have rested on bad mistakes. I am an ignorant pilgrim, crossing a dark valley. And yet for a long time, looking back, I have been unable to shake off the feeling that I have been led – make of that what you will.” (133)
“New grief, when it came, you could feel filling the air. It took up all the room there was. The place itself, the whole place, became a reminder of the absence of the hurt or the dead or the missing one. I don’t believe that grief passes away. It has its time and place forever. More time is added to it; it becomes a story within a story. But grief and griever alike endure.” (148)
“But the mercy of the world is time. Time does not stop for love, but it does not stop for death and grief, either. After death and grief that (it seems) ought to have stopped the world, the world goes on. More things happen. And some of the things that happen are good. My life was changing now. It had to change. I am not going to say that it changed for the better. There was good in it as it was. But also there was good in it as it was going to be.” (296)
“Troubled or not, grieved or not, you have got to live. And the facts of the case are even harder than that, for however troubled and grieved you may be, you will often find, looking back, that you were not living without enjoyment. That day had a trouble in it that would overwhelm its pleasure, though I did not yet know it.” (358)
“I can remember those early years when it seemed to me I was cut completely adrift, and times when, looking back at earlier times, it seemed I had been wandering in the dark woods of error. But now it looks to me as though I was following a path that was laid out for me, unbroken, and maybe even as straight as possible, from one end to the other, and I have this feeling, which never leaves me anymore, that I have been led.” (66)
“I can’t look back from where I am now and feel that I have been very much in charge of my life. Certainly I have lived on the edge of the Port William community, and I am father than ever out on the edge of it now. But I feel that I have lived on the edge even of my own life. I have made plans enough, but I see now that I have never lived by plan. Any more than if I had been a bystander watching me live my life, I don’t feel that I have ever been quite sure what was going on. Nearly everything that has happened to me has happened by surprise. All the important things have happened by surprise. And whatever has been happening usually has already happened before I have had time to expect it. The world doesn’t stop because you are in love or in mourning or in need of time to think. And so when I have though I was in my story or in charge of it, I really have only been on the edge of it, carried along. Is this because we are in an eternal story that is happening partly in time?” (322)