Monday, November 14, 2016

Small Town Life

A Place in Time: Twenty Stories of the Port William MembershipA Place in Time: 
Twenty Stories of the Port William Membership 
by Wendell Berry

“But love, sooner or later, forces us out of time...of all that we feel and do, all the virtues and all the sins, love alone crowds us at last over the edge of the world. For love is always more than a little strange here...It is in the world, but is not altogether of it. It is of eternity. It takes us there when it most holds us here.”   ― Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow

Wendell Berry has been writing poetry and essays on farming life for more than half a century. But he has also written fiction set in Port William, Ky., which rivals William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County in terms of its breadth of imagined historical detail. A Place in Time includes 20 stories that feature familiar characters from earlier novels and stories, but it is not necessary to have read those to get pleasure out of these.

This is a good introduction to many of the families that inhabit Port William. The Catletts and Feltners are prominent in several stories. While individual characters like Burley Coulter, Elton Penn, and Andy Catlett stand out. The stories span more than a century and a half of history from the opening story, set in the Civil War era to the titular tale that ends the book during the first decade of the new millennium.

The stories are not plot driven but focus on character, including the character of Port William itself. The relationships of characters are as important as their actions in these beautiful vignettes of small town life. As someone who was raised in a small town I found moments that resonated with my own experience. "Andy Catlett: Early Education" reminded me of my own schooldays while also bringing my reading of books like Tom Sawyer to mind. One of the most potent stories, for instance, is markedly subtle: “A Desirable Woman” tracks the intersection of a pastor’s wife and a young farmhand shortly before the start of World War II, and the story turns on the young man’s unrequited crush on the woman shortly before he’s sent off to war. “Sold” has a similarly soft-focus, nostalgic cast, narrated by an elderly woman recalling the accumulations that are about to be sold at auction before she enters a nursing home. Some of the stories are suggestive of homespun tales or Twain (again), as in “A New Day,” which climaxes in a competition between two horse teams dragging bricks, or “A Burden,” about the antics of a drunk relation.

Throughout the collection Berry's writing style is poetic as he shares episodes of loss and love, achievement and angst; all set against the backdrop of the evolution of Port William through time. The historic context was omnipresent but not overwhelming. It intruded with tales of soldiers returning or not returning from war and notes of other events, although the focus was continually on the families -- their follies, their foibles, and their faith. Berry is a writer whose beautiful sentences are imbued with an agrarian spirit. That and a concern for both time past and time future make this a fine collection.

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R. T. (Tim) Davis said...

There is such a wonder-filled subgenre of literature: linked stories within single settings (e.g., Winesburg; Dubliners; and quite a few more). I appreciate your posting because you have alerted me to another in the subgenre by an author I have for too long neglected. Now, I hope my library has a copy!

All the best to you from The Violent Bear It Away.

Stephen said...

I love, love, love -- did I mention love? -- Wendell Berry as an author. I don't know if you've read more of the Port William books, but these characters' stories all interlace in different books, so the more the more you read, the more rich the experience becomes when you RE-read, because they're less characters than full LIVES.

James said...

Thanks for your comment. The reference to Winesburg and Dubliners is so very fitting. The feeling of the place, Port William, is central to the stories.

James said...

Thanks for your comment. I first read some of Berry's essays and only later encountered Port William. First came A Place on Earth and now this collection.