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Do yourself a favor and read Hannah Coulter

Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry book on beach.

John Touhey | Aleteia

Theresa Civantos Barber - published on 07/15/23

It’s honestly incredible that the greatest American author of all time is living in our own era! Don't miss one of his best books.

Anyone who knows me is aware that I’m not exactly shy about expressing strong opinions. So recently I posted on my social media:

Is Wendell Berry the greatest American author? Discuss.

My friends took the bait and brought up a number of other legendary American authors, such as Mark Twain, Willa Cather, Thomas Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ernest Hemingway, Edgar Allen Poe, Herman Melville … 

As they tossed out names and book titles, I only became more convinced. I’ve read at least one book by each of those authors above. And I maintain that Berry is the greatest American author ever—not just the greatest one currently living, but of all time (if you see me in person, I’m happy to debate the subject further! Talking about books is my life).

What sets Berry above the rest is just how many things he gets right in his writing. His characters and plots are so psychologically realistic that you forget he’s writing fiction, and he writes beautifully, describing things so that you see them as though for the first time. I’ve not seen his equal this side of the Atlantic. And I’ve looked! 

It’s honestly kind of incredible that the greatest American author of all time is living in our own era. Now 88 years old, Wendell Berry has made his home in rural Kentucky for most of his life, and this place is the setting for his novels.

If you haven’t read anything by Berry yet, let me encourage you to remedy that, post haste! His poems and essays are short and accessible, but I would recommend starting with one of his novels, Hannah Coulter. It’s on the Aleteia 2023 Summer Book List.

The story of a hopeful life

“This is my story, my giving of thanks,” Hannah Coulter says. Elderly and twice widowed, the narrator endures the throes of the Great Depression and World War II, along with the slow dissolution of her family due to modern life, but never loses hope.

Hannah Coulter is Wendell Berry’s seventh novel and his first to employ the voice of a woman character in its telling. Hannah recounts the love she has for the land and for her community. The whole book is deeply imbued with love of nature, of one’s own “home place,” of family, and of membership in a community where residents are known and belong.

Discussion questions

  • Hannah speaks of “the room of love” that she enters with her husband, and of how they learn to stay in that interior room of the soul. What does “the room of love” look like in your relationships? How can you better abide there with those you love?
    • Hannah expresses her sorrow about her children moving farther away, largely due to technological changes and shifting attitudes. How do you think she would react to technology that can keep people more connected over physical distance?
    • Is there someone in your life that you are waiting for, hoping to return? How does Hannah model patience, hope and forgiveness?
    • Hannah recalls happy memories with her children, especially the family’s picnics. What makes these moments so wonderful? How can you create these kinds of memories with those you love?
    • Even while enduring heartbreak and tragedy, Hannah finds a way to be grateful. Gratitude is like a lifeline for her. What role does gratitude play in your life, and how can you further cultivate this virtue?
    • Several times, Nathan Coulter says, “We’ll live right on.” What does it mean to live right on, and why do they need to take this approach? Have you had a time in your life when you had to find the strength to “live right on”?
    • Belonging to a local community is a major theme of this book. What would it look like to be deeply rooted in your own particular place on earth? What small steps can you take to build this kind of community around you?

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