This novel tells the story of Hannah's life, from the farm in Port William where Hannah's mother died when she was 12, through her first marriage to Virgil Feltner, who went to fight in World War II and never returned, through her second marriage to Nathan Coulter, who died of cancer after they had shared a life of hard-scrabble farming together, raising two sons who went away to college and never came back to their little farming community.
Sounds depressing? Not at all. Wendell Berry is a great writer, with the gift of making ordinary people and ordinary things seem wonderful and important. He probes deeply into the lives of his characters, and they come alive.
Without being overtly Christian, this novel is infused with faith and chock-full of Scriptural allusions. For example, after she is widowed for the first time Hannah looks back and says,
Now I know what we were trying to stand for ... the possibility that among the world's wars and sufferings two people could love each other for a long time, until death and beyond, and could make a place for each other that would be a part of their love, as their love for each other would be a way of loving their place. This love would be one of the acts of the greater love that holds and cherishes all the world.
When her second husband, Nathan, received the diagnosis of terminal cancer, he tells Hannah that he doesn't want "to be worn all to holes like an old shirt no good for rags," and she understands him to mean that he wants to die at home, as himself, not at "the end of a technological process." Then he says, "I'm asking this of you, Hannah. I know it's a lot to ask. I'm sorry." Hannah says, "Do you remember what we promised?" "Yes," he said. "I remember."
Love, loyalty, commitment, faith. These are the qualities that shine through Hannah's life. It's hard not to be inspired by a book like this. Try it, you'll see!