Gwen and I were talking about the luminous writing of Wendell Berry when I was at her house a few weeks ago. Being a native Kentuckian and fellow lover of literature, she introduced me to his books this spring with a birthday gift of his short stories. Entirely by accident, I found another of his books in the library at L’Abri this summer to continue my immersion and then borrowed one of Gwen’s collection during my visit. We were walking as we talked him over, out in the gold of late autumn trees. I was trying to put my finger on the rare state of mind his books always create in me.
“There’s a, well, I don’t know. I guess a sort of hush to his books,” I began.
“Yes.” said Gwen with sudden certainty. “That’s it!”
And I do believe she’s right. The writing of Wendell Berry is hushed in the way that my own life, lived in the circle of my own days is hushed. It’s quiet because it reflects, with expert artistry, the reality of real people in normal life. When I enter the world of a Berry novel, I am not whisked away to an exotic land or a romantically unrealistic setting. In fact, there is no whisking at all. Reading Berry is more of a settling down. It’s an immersion into the workaday thoughts of people who work and eat and love pretty much like me. Slow, like our own real days are slow, his stories build gradually, told often through the inner contemplation of his characters. I enter a cadence of living when I read his novels that enhances and shores up the rhythm of my own.
Most of Berry’s novels are set in the fictional Kentucky town of Port William, a small farming community set during and after WWII. A Place on Earth, the novel I just finished, focuses most on the hearts and minds of Matt Feltner, Margaret his wife, and Hannah, his daughter-in-law as they endure the slow loss of their son and husband who has been declared missing in WWII. I loved it because of its hush; there were very few points of sudden drama. The tale of grief was told slowly, following its rise in dark evenings and its slight waning in the normalcy of working days and other people. It was a story of loss, but also of building up again and the tale followed the seasons of these farm folk as the dark earth of their land as well as the earth of their own hearts was tilled, planted and harvested through a year of change. It’s not necessarily a happy story, but it’s a good story. Hard realities, broken-hearted facts are not ignored in Berry’s novels. But they are faced with a grace that rises up out of a lifestyle of hard work and community that, while never denying grief, yet seeks to move through it into a fragile hope.
From what I’ve read so far of Wendell Berry writing, I find a fictional portrayal of real life that is in many ways like a good poem; it takes the most ordinary elements of life, molding them with the fingers of deep contemplation, grief and a good bit of wonder that turns them into an object of unexpected grace. I am more able to live well after reading his writing. I feel heartened, in a really quiet way, in the enduring and loving of my own life in its odd balance of joy and struggle.
So. There’s a glimpse into my literary rambles of late. They’re hushed. But they sure do have a quiet joy.