“A Place in Time: Twenty Stories of the Port William Membership”
by Wendell Berry; 2012; 237 pages; $26.
Among this distinguished writer’s 50 published books, “A Place in Time” comes out of his imaginary Port William community so smoothly and intricately you’ll be eagerly reading the 20 stories one after another.
Controlled by their narrators — mainly Andy Catlett, Burley Coulter, special narrators like Beulah Gibbs, or Berry himself, all have the capacity for details that make a story more than interesting. Who narrates may not be mentioned until later; whoever tells a story runs the risk of leaving something out so the story gets altered in time. Occasionally an apology is made, “because I wasn’t there.” Barring his use of the vernacular, it’s as though Berry has often taken the meditative voice from the middle of Thoreau’s “Walden” and given it to these narrators and the book as a whole.
The prose is hypnotic, sometimes dreamlike, at other times so specific readers may ponder how many farms Berry himself has been on.
This Port William community has its share of happiness and hilarity, love and loss, poverty, success and death. Sons are left without their parents. The aim is to get a start and work, secure some land, marry and have children who will carry on. It’s the time of tobacco, self-sustaining gardens, and crops that need hoeing. Plowing and handling horses provide keenest moments. But change is coming, as Berry makes all too clear by the end of the period 1864-2008.
Because the stories are about time, Berry frequently employs a rhetorical gesture of turning back on it, as when he says of Andy Catlett in the story “Fly Away, Breath”: “His thought can travel like a breeze over water back and forth upon the face of it, and also back and forth in time along its streams and roads.” The present is constantly eluding his characters as it becomes the past. No wonder, later, that Art Rowanberry must go over and back on the same path to make it “dimensional and substantial” — as much his, as possible. Berry’s characters need more time in order to have their own time to live in it. What better place than a farm, with its confines relieved by great spaces and landscapes? Burley Coulter spends a whole dark night with his dogs hunting and skinning, and every skin he places in his coat pocket is a marker of his own time he’ll later revisit to clean, finish and sell the skins. The act keeps him from being lost, for this happy man who loves his dogs is willing to be lost, and later when he hears them calling, can find himself.
Capturing the past, humor ensures the Port William tradition of telling stories over and over. In one of the funniest, Big Ellis, hoping to marry, with trouble keeping his pants up, gets suddenly exposed riding by his girlfriend to show off his new team of horses. For another, just watch the basketball game in “A New Day (1949),” or the man about to slide on a barn roof in “Burley Coulter’s Fortunate Fall (1934).”
You don’t have to live on a farm to appreciate how profoundly Berry’s stories invite us to re-examine the past in one place in America. Like Huck of Tom Sawyer, it hits us where we live. The psyches of Berry’s characters are deeper than they know, and we are invited to plumb their depths.
If there is a history in America, it is being written by characters like Beulah Gibbs who, in “Sold,” looks back upon each item of her past life, including her farm, as it is auctioned off, and the farm eventually destroyed by the developer who has bought it at his own price. Like Euracleia (“The Odyssey”) who remembers a scar, Beulah, however, through it all remembers her loving daughter’s touch upon her arm.
And here, Wendell Berry, with the weight of history and time, has reached and touched us again.
Theodore Haddin is an Emeritus Professor from The University of Alabama at Birmingham, and lives in Birmingham.