Those looking for a conventional plot won’t find one in “A Place on Earth.” Wendell Berry’s book is more a series of observations and reflections on rural culture, linked together by the slow passage of life in a small Kentucky farming community.

The community, as Berry enthusiasts will know no doubt know, is Port William, the setting for all of his fiction works. The characters in “A Place on Earth,” many of which have appeared in Berry’s other works, are simple farmers and townsfolk, people content to till the soil and live off the land the same as generations before them have. They each have an inherent connection with nature, as if the wilderness surrounding them isn’t something to conquer or exploit, but a constant witness to their lives.

So many authors would look at this type of pastoral setting with cynicism, but Berry, himself a farmer who lives in Henry County, finds the poetry in it. His books drip with a deep-seeded love for the agrarian lifestyle, the changing nature of which he has explored in essays and nonfiction work throughout his more than 40-year career.

“A Place on Earth,” published originally in 1967, was one of Berry’s first novels and embodies the exuberance of a writer exploring characters and subjects he deeply believes in. But while Berry’s love of rural life is obvious, he doesn’t let the book drift into postcard sentimentality or didacticism, which some critics have accused him of. There is a dark tinge to the novel’s events, expressing how the characters’ connection to their surroundings cannot compensate for the emotional pains in their lives.

 Berry sets the story toward the end of WWII, just months before the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. He focuses in on a handful of characters, mostly cantankerous country-types with enjoyably colorful names — Burley Coulter, Gideon Crop, Jayber Crow. The novel’s male characters, most of which are in the twilight of their lives, pass their days with a steady flow of farm work, breaking off occasionally for a friendly card game at the barbershop owned by Crow. There is a quiet monotony to their lives, but none seem too despondent over it.

Berry, who has made a career writing about these characters, defines them in clear, sometimes heartbreaking terms, bringing each individual into focus throughout the novel. Crow, an educated man who seems to have come by barbering almost by accident, passes his evenings with cigarettes and piles of books. He keeps no regular store hours, but simply opens when he can think of nothing better to do. He dreams of saving up enough money to buy a house on a lake, hoping to live out his days fishing.

Another character, called simply Old Jack, is an irascible codger content to speak his mind regardless of what those around him want to hear. His wife died nine years earlier and he has moved into a small hotel in town, spending his days quarreling and irritating the ladies who work and live there. Crow and the other men bring him into their regular card game, mostly to give his female hosts a break. He hates the game, and keeps at it for that reason. “He plays as if it is his obligation to wipe the game from the face of creation,” Berry writes.

Berry has fun crafting his characters, but for all their quirky humor, there is something somber pervading their lives. The protagonist is Mat Feltner, who owns a farm and works it on his own to support his family. His son, Virgil, has gone missing in the war. Virgil’s wife, Hannah, is expecting a baby, and Mat and his wife try to take care of her as they fear the worst for their son. Mat tries to lose himself in the work of the farm, taking comfort in the daily pattern of chores. For all the farm’s comforts though, Mat starts to buckle under the stress of his son’s absence.

This sense of loss and unease expresses itself in the other characters. In one of the novel’s most harrowing passages, farmer Gideon Crop fights through a flood on his property and loses his daughter, Annie, when a dock collapses on a nearby river. During the sequence, Crop tries to save his daughter but realizes begrudgingly that he is going to have to fight to save himself. Berry emphasizes Crop’s smallness in the sequence, creating a sense that no matter his actions, he is powerless against the flood.

After losing his daughter, Crop disappears from his farm, leaving his friends to help his wife work the land. His disappearance creates even more discontent among the town’s members. Berry uses absence effectively in the novel to explore the characters’ growing uncertainty. No one seems quite whole because there is always someone or something missing in the larger community.

Peppered throughout the novel are letters that Burley Coulter sends to his nephew, Nathan, presumably at war, filling him in on the happenings of Port William. Burley uses the letters to remind his nephew of home, recalling pleasant memories of farming and fishing and the beauty of the land. But as he writes of the dire situation around him, Burley’s sadness and unease comes through. The comfort of the land, we sense, isn’t enough to fill the void left by absent loved ones.

The novel builds to the drop of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and the characters’ shock at the massive, instantaneous loss of life. As the war ends, Mat (even the spelling of his name expresses something missing) comes to terms with the fact that Virgil won’t ever return. As his grandchild is born, he sees the continuation of life around him, but takes little comfort in it. After spending so much of his life working in the Earth, Mat understands its utter indifference to human events.  His own death, he realizes, will be met with the same indifference.

Ultimately, Mat recognizes his own smallness in the face of his surroundings, but Berry doesn’t see this as a sad realization. The wilderness Mat loves will endure long after he is gone, something that only deepens his love for it. He arrives at a place of peace with his environment, recognizing its beauty but understanding its size and complexity.

Reach Dennis O’Neil at 270-887-3237 or doneil@kentuckynewera.com.

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