Book Review: Hannah Coulter

hannah coulter
hannah coulter

“There we were at a great crisis in our lives, and it had to be, it could only be, dealt with as an ordinary thing.” Most novels have a predictable structure, a rhythm and cadence to the narration which make the story being told comfortable and easily digestible. This is a generally a good thing and something I never really noticed until this week’s read, Hannah Coulter by Wendell Barry.

Hannah Coulter breaks with the traditional plot lines and story arc. There isn’t a huge crisis or surprising dénouement, instead, the structure is more akin to a memoir that tells the facts of an ordinary life.

In fact, the plot line has little, if anything dramatic of note. There’s life, death, resentment, misunderstandings, to be sure, but nothing you wouldn’t expect over an 80-year life.

However, this is a gorgeous, beautiful book.

I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed the voice of the narrator, Hannah Coulter. The prose was like tasting butter, both subtle and rich. I found myself crying at parts because her insights felt so real I was over-whelmed with empathy.

For instance, Hannah describes her life with grown children who have moved away from the farm. She draws a contrast between the days when her life was dominated by their presence; then she says,

“Now all of my thoughts about them start with knowing that they are gone.

They are gone. They come back varyingly often, and I remain attached to them, by love entirely, and partly by continuing knowledge. But the old ties, to be plain about it, are mostly broken. We live in different places, lead lives that are different, have different hopes and thoughts, know different things. We don’t talk alike anymore.”

Even re-typing that makes me cry.

But the book isn’t particularly sad as much as it is insightful. I have marked every other page with admiration notes and comments like “wow” or “YES!” for the incredible way Wendell Berry writes.

The themes of this story are contentment, gratitude, community, and the ability to stay present, enjoying today. A few examples:

“For awhile, especially if you have children, you shape your life according to expectations. That is arguably pretty foolish, for expectations can be a bucketful of smoke.”

YES! So true!

“Time doesn’t stop. Your life doesn’t stop and wait until you get ready to start living it.”


“…you mustn’t wish for another life. You mustn’t want to be someone else. What you must do is this: ‘Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks.’ I am not all the way capable of so much, but those are the right instructions.”

I would quote all of my favorite lines, but you should just read the book for yourself. It’s a treat.

Berry, you have a new fan.