Friday, September 18, 2009

That Distant Land by Wendell Berry


I go through about fifty books a year and rarely do I find more than one that touches me in the deepest part of my soul. Surprisingly, I’ve read two like that this year. Seven months ago it was Cry the Beloved Country and now it’s Wendell Berry’s That Distant Land.
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In Berry’s case, I’m still reeling from the emotional impact of the book and am not sure I can put my experience into words. From the very first paragraphs of the book I felt as though I’d been given a rare privilege. Not only did his narrative style draw me quickly into the story, but the people he described were so believable in their weaknesses and strengths, that I soon forgot they were fictional characters and felt a secret pleasure at eavesdropping into their lives.

How could I not love gangly Tol Proudfoot who married late in life and never ceased to adore his bride? Or faithful Jack who kept a vigilant watch over his nephew until he was sure he would not take revenge on his father’s murderer? Or Elton Penn who found healing from his brokenness in the farming community?

The stories, set in the fictional town of Port William, Kentucky, begin in 1888 and end about a hundred years later. The theme of many of them is the necessity (and responsibility) of our interrelatedness as human beings. In “The Wild Birds” Burley Coulter says, “We are members of each other. All of us. Everything. The difference ain’t in who is a member and who is not, but in who knows it and who don’t." (p.356)

Be prepared to read this book with a little ache around your heart. You’ll be touched by its tender friendships, its descriptions of the fragility and beauty of life, and its relentless pictures of suffering infused with grace. No matter how bad things get, Berry convinces you that life is good; it’s a gift worth opening because it is made rich by the love of good friends and neighbors.

There are too many beautiful passages to quote them all, but here’s a short sample:
It was a long walk because we had to go around the inlets of the backwater that lay in every swag and hollow. Way off, now and again, we could hear the owls. Once we startled a deer and stood still while it plunged away into the shadows. And always we were walking among the flowers. I wanted to keep thinking that they were like stars, but after a while I could not think so. They were not like stars. They did not have that hard, distant glitter. And yet in their pale, peaceful way, they shone. They collected their little share of light and gave it back. (p.369)

12 comments:

SmallWorld at Home said...

I love Wendell Berry, and I can't read anything of his without wanting to copy down dozens and dozens of quotes!

Carrie K. said...

You review made me tear up - I think it's about time for a re-read of this one. This is the book that introduced me to the wonder that is Wendell Berry.

Janet said...

What a beautiful review! I loved reading about your experience with this book.

I've read these stories, too. I think my favorite of all, heartbreaking though it is, is 'The Boundary.' I also love 'Are You All Right?' Something emblematic about it for me.

S. Mehrens said...

What a great review! My book club is reading Jayber Crow for our next discussion. I'd never heard of Berry until recently and I wasn't sure if I'd like his writing or not. After reading your review I'm excited to start Jayber Crow and want to add That Distant Land to my TBR list. Thanks.

Laura said...

Great review! I enjoyed this book and found it to be one of my favorites by Berry.

Sherry said...

I love Wendell Berry, too, but I don't usually read short stories. That's why I haven't read this one yet, but I think its worth a try.

Gretchen Joanna said...

"The Memory of Old Jack" by Berry hit a deep chord in me. I will have to read "That Distant Land" next. Thank you!

magistramater said...

Oh, my friend.

A reminder of Berry is just what I need tonight. My son's friend was killed in Afghanistan yesterday. I'm still trying to wrap my head around the fact that the young man with his arm around his wife is...gone. At home with the Lord. The whole membership concept is the best picture of community in writing. Wendell Berry gets it. We belong to one another.

Carol

Amy said...

Oh, you've made me hungry for a little bit of Wendell Berry. He's on my TBR list for the year (of course), but I haven't gotten to him yet. Maybe it's time!

Sara said...

I had a similar reaction to Wendell Berry's novel, Hannah Coulter, a couple of months ago. It was my first foray into his books. He is unique and a powerful writer.

Emily J. said...

It's wonderful that Wendell Berry is finally getting his due after writing so devotedly and beautifully for so long. He always gets under your skin.(I stumbled on your blog from the WB blog, and like your list of books!)

Norah said...

I just started my first WB book, Hannah Coulter.. Thanks for the review of this book too.