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.
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)