Author: Wendell Berry
Title: Nathan Coulter
Description: This is the first of a series of novels set in rural Port William, Kentucky. As the book opens, Nathan Coulter, the narrator, is a young boy living on a tobacco farm with his parents and Brother. This short novel relates episodes in Nathan’s life, illustrating his relationships with his father, with Brother, with his grandparents, and with Uncle Burley, who could never quite get it together.
Plot: There’s not much of a plot here; this novel reads more like a memoir. The reader gets vignettes from Nathan’s life from his early childhood through his teenage years. Each chapter could function as a short story; only the characters really maintain continuity from chapter to chapter.
Characters: Nathan is a typical mid-twentieth century farm boy, I suppose. He doesn’t seem to have any ambition or to go to school. He works on the farm and hunts and fishes with Uncle Burley and Brother. Uncle Burley is the most rounded character; he never marries or moves away from home, but he does his best to refuse to be shaped into the mold that seems to eventually capture everyone else.
Writing style: Berry is also well-known for his non-fiction and his poetry. His fiction style borrows from his poetry, I imagine. I’d call it laconic.
Audience: This is literary fiction. It is really a good deal like our previous book club read (Home), except that there is less of it.
Wrap-up: Berry is best-known for his advocacy of returning to the land. He currently lives on and farms land that has been in his family for generations. If there is a meaning to this book, I think that it is wrapped up in the family’s relationship to the land they farm. It’s a cliché to say that the place functions as a character in the novel, so I won’t, but it does. Reading back over this review, it doesn’t sound like I’m crazy about the book, and I’m not raving about it, but I still give it a solid 5/5*. I just liked it.