Struggles of fictional Ky. family reflect the past and foretell the future

Wendell Berry’s novel, “Hannah Coulter,” captures life in rural Kentucky at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
by Constance Alexander,

On Dec. 7, 1941, news of the attack on Pearl Harbor interrupted regular radio programming, disrupting religious services, movie screenings, and Sunday suppers. At first, some details of the devastation were withheld to avoid panic, but what was revealed exposed enough for the public to realize the losses were stunning.

The next day, the U.S. declared war on Japan, and a few days later Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. Congress reacted by declaring war on those two countries, which were already at war with England.

Constance Alexander headshot
Constance Alexander

Imagine the days unfolding on the home front: Teenage boys skipping school to sign up for military service. Women worry about sons, husbands, and other loved ones marching off to war. Kids in high school marked their calendars with dates of upcoming Christmas dances and holiday parties, while little ones wrote letters to Santa, promised to be good, and reveled in the magic of twinkling lights and silvery tinsel.

Wendell Berry’s novel, “Hannah Coulter,” embraces a whole lifetime in the fictional community of Port William, Kentucky. As Hannah recalls her own childhood, young love and loss, raising children, and the changing of seasons, she recounts the homespun activities of Christmas 1941, capturing the tension of “a kind of pressure against the future or any talk of plans.”

“After Pearl Harbor,” the story goes, “our voices sounded different to us, as voices do in a house after an outside door has blown open.”

In the beginning of Chapter 5, entitled “What We Were,” Hannah Steadman and Virgil Coulter have gotten married. With war seemingly inevitable, they dared to imagine a life together. With Christmas coming up, they decided to make the most of it.

The cooking, the decorating, the festive preparations engaged all members of the family. “Each of us knew that the others were dealing nearly all the time with the thought of the war, but that thought we kept in the secret quiet of our own minds…The war was a bodily presence. It was in all of us, and nobody said a word.”

Sixteen family members gathered to exchange simple presents and share a sumptuous meal on Christmas Day. “That day everybody had something to remember, something that others also remembered, about other Christmases and about that day so far, and they told it to enjoy it again and to enjoy it together.”

As the day wound down, finally one of the guests declared, “I expect we’d better go.” Then others followed, amidst the usual long goodbyes and gathering of hats, coats, and presents.

When one relative began counting noses, she realized that little Andy was missing. She finally found him in the dining room, in the corner at the end of the sideboard, crying.

“The knowledge of it passed over us all. He didn’t know, as we grownups knew, what war meant and might mean. He had only understood that what we were that day was lovely and could not last.”

For holiday reading, or indeed any time of the year, “Hannah Coulter” is a compelling story told in the voice of an elderly widow. Although it is fiction, it feels real but reflects a past most of us never experienced.

Currently, the world is suffering from many ills, including a pandemic. The threat of a new variant of the Coronavirus breeds suspicion, uncertainty, and political ballyhoo. Eighty years after Pearl Harbor, we pay more attention to news of Black Friday and Cyber Monday than we do our history.

“Things fall apart,” poet William Butler Yates might remark today, as he did in his famous poem, The Second Coming. “The center cannot hold …”

Struggles of fictional Ky. family reflect the past and foretell the future

NKyTribune

The NKyTribune is a nonprofit news outlet and a publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism. It is a nonpartisan, independent news organization that produces indepth, informative journalism in the public interest.