A Place on Earth

By Wendell Berry

2,268 ratings - 4.32* vote

Published in 1967, we return to Port William during the Second World War to revisit Jayber Crow, the barber, Uncle Stanley, the gravedigger, Jarrat and Burley, the sharecroppers, and Brother Preston, the preacher, as well as Mat Feltner, his wife Margaret, and his daughter-in-law Hannah, whose son will be born after news comes that Hannah's husband Virgil is missing."The e Published in 1967, we return to Port William during the Second World War to revisit Jayber Crow, the barber,

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Book details

Paperback, 321 pages
May 17th 2001 by Counterpoint LLC

(first published November 30th 1966)

Original Title
A Place on Earth
ISBN
1582431248 (ISBN13: 9781582431246)
Edition Language
English

Community Reviews

Sara

There are few authors who can capture the feeling of a place and the nature of a people as well as Wendell Berry. His fictional place of Port William is achingly real and his recurring use of familiar characters to tell a new story makes you feel as if you are part of that community and have sat in Jayber’s barber shop or traded at Burgess’ store.

This is one of Berry’s sadder novels. It is an exploration of loss, in all its forms, through death and estrangement and longing. Every emotion that can be associated with love and loss is here, spread before us like a banquet, and there is a seat at the table for every man because this is the food of life and each of us must taste of it. The wisdom of Berry is a soft, human, heartfelt thing, however, never pedantic or condescending.

Seeing that the old man is saddened by what he said, Wheeler says kindly; “Nothing anybody can do, Uncle Jack.” But surely Wheeler knows better than to think that is any consolation. It is just the truth. And a man who is depending on the truth to console him is sometimes in a hell of a fix. To Old Jack, the sorrowful thing exactly is that there is nothing anybody can do.

He understands that the loss of any person you love is so personal that, for you, it is the only death that has ever occurred.

And there he sat in your granddaddy's chair, with his consolations and his old speech. Just putting our names in the blanks. And I thought; Preacher, he’s dead, he’s not here, and you’ll never know what it is that’s gone. The last words ought to say what it is that has died. The last words for Tom ain’t in the letter from the government, and they won’t be said by the preacher. They’ll be said by you and me and the rest of us when we talk about our old times and laugh about the good happenings. They won’t be said as long as we live.

But all is not sadness, for just as life can make us laugh through our tears, so Berry does as well. There are a couple of scenes in this novel that made me howl, and a thread of humor that runs through it beginning to end. When reading Berry, I seem to want to step inside the covers of the book and comfort, kiss or reassure these people, or at the least just crawl up on the porch and sit with Andy and Henry and listen to their stories and laugh at their antics.

Wendell Berry is a poet and a prophet and a farmer who understands this earth in a way that most of us cannot. He obviously knows the hard work, but also the satisfaction, that comes with a life of purpose that is tied to all of God’s creation. Coming from a family that once farmed, I can remember how much my grandfather knew and understood of nature and the cycle of life that is lost to me now and is beyond even the imaginings of my grandchildren.

If you have not ever read Wendell Berry, you cannot imagine what you have missed.


Chrissie

The GR book description states that “ In A Place on Earth the central character is not a person but a place: Port William, Kentucky, and the farmlands and forests that surround it, and the Kentucky River that runs nearby.”

I disagree. The characters stand out more than the place. They are alive and real, and it is they that make the story. I do agree that the fictional town, Port William, is well drawn too. It becomes a place with an identity of its own. Life is slower there, simpler, less hectic. It is a joy to visit the people and the town. This is not to say the townsfolk’s lives are friction free or that they are model citizens. The novel is set during the Second World War and one son is "missing in action" and his wife at home in the town is pregnant. Anyhow, it is the characters' fumbling humanity that makes them so real. In Wendell Berry’s book real people, with real life problems are beautifully drawn.

There are a multitude of characters. Are they hard to keep straight? No, they are not! For each one, either an incident or a characteristic about them is given. What you are told makes each one unique and special. They become individuals you neither confuse nor forget. Old Jack, for example, always knows what is best and he is terribly obstinate. We meet Jayber Crow, the town barber, and Stanley Gibbs the gravedigger. Each become individuals you wish you knew in person. I don’t see any as being evil, but they fumble and make mistakes. I find them extremely easy to relate to.

I do think though that Wendell Berry is better at drawing men than women; the women do not come alive to the extent the men do. They are rather flat; they lack the foibles of the men; they are too good, too perfect. In this story there are many more male characters than female characters, so this is not a problem.

The prose is lyrical and worthy of thought. Here follow two examples:

“When we have lost it all, we have had what we lost.”

“I don’t believe that when his death is subtracted from his life, I don’t believe it leaves nothing. It leaves his life.”

The audiobook narration by Paul Michael is excellent. He reads slowly. This suits the mode of life in Port William. He is great at drawing the humor, the sadness and the profundity of the lines. He uses different intonation for different characters, and he does this extremely well. When the war ends there is a party and a couple of friends get seriously drunk. This episode is funny and very well narrated. You simply must laugh; do remember I spoke of the gravedigger Stan!

So far, I think this is my favorite by the author. Maybe it is a bit on the long side. It exists in two editions. In 1983 it was revised and shortened. I think what I listened to was the longer version.



*****************
The Memory of Old Jack 5 stars
A Place on Earth 4 stars
Stand By Me 4 stars
Jayber Crow 4 stars
Hannah Coulter 2 stars
Nathan Coulter 2 stars
Andy Catlett: Early Travels TBR

Diane Barnes

As usual, right after finishing a Berry book, it immediately becomes my favorite. This one gave me the chance to read more about my favorite characters in Port William: Burley Coulter and Jayber Crow. I especially like the way Margaret Feltner was portrayed in very few words and scenes. Her strength and faith and courage in adversity were instrumental in Mat Feltner's ability to be the respected man that he became. Hannah Coulter got her own book, but Margaret is every bit as important as a character. Just quietly going about her days, doing what needed to be done, makes an incredible statement about Berry's appreciation of women.

There is a lot of sadness and loss in this book as well. The story of Ida and Gideon and the flood was heart-wrenching, but when you throw in the loneliness of Ernest Findlay, it creates an unbearable sense of the futility of impossible dreams.

Because Berry is a master at portraying real people dealing with real things, there is humor as well. Uncle Stanley Gibbs was guaranteed to produce laughs whenever he appeared on the scene, especially his remarks while teaching Jayber the finer points of grave digging. A drunken scene late in the novel had me rolling, and little Henry Catlett driving the mules into the barn was priceless. Through it all, the inhabitants of Port William just keep doing what is necessary to get through the days and seasons of their life the best way they know how.

As do we all.

Cathrine ☯️

5 ?????
In an interview Ron Rash was talking about the intensity we readers experience with certain books and about a passage in particular he said

"Until then I had entered the books I read, but that was the first book that entered me."

That is exactly how I feel when I read Wendell Berry. This one was particularly immersive and poignant.

I utilized both ebook and audio formats. The narration was excellent.

Cal

"But I don't believe that when his death is subtracted from his life it leaves nothing. Do you, Mat?" "No" he says. "I do not." "What it leave is his life. How could I turn away from it now any more than when he was a child, and not love it and be glad of it. just because death is in it?" Her words fall on him like water and like light........"And Mat,"she says "we belong to one another. After all these years. Doesn't it mean something?" It is along time before he answers...."I do not know what it means,"he finally says. 'I know what it's worth."
I don't know what the past month means and it sure as hell is not worth it. however, his words of death, pain, and sorrow seem to hold more hope than anything i touch these days. Without telling me what hope is, the stories seem more true and worthy of pain and grief and this is what i need. Old Jack said in this book that "And a man who is depending on the truth to console him is sometimes in a hell of a fix." Thanks for putting great words to so much i feel.

Sarah

This book ended my journey through the Port William books. It was not written last in the series, we just didn't own it until recently. All nine of these achingly beautiful books have fallen into one of two catergories for me: either it has been "one of the best books I have EVER read" or "Wow. That was gorgeously written, and utterly depressing." This kind of toggled between the two categories. In fact, for the first time in the whole series I caught myself being angry at Wendell Berry for killing one of the secondary characters whom I had grown to depend on and love. The book dealt with loss and death, while occasionally throwing in some absurdity to ease the sober tension. One of the comic scenes in the end, while probably intentional, almost seemed like it was put in because we as readers were owed something lighter (even though the comic scene was at a pretend funeral). So, I gave this 4 stars because it was awesomely and tightly written, but just too sad to receive 5 stars. Since I read it last, it felt like the missing puzzle piece in the lives of many of the Port William membership. His treatment of Burley I found to be especially tender, and while completely wayward, I still love that old boy.

Recommended if you already love the Port William membership. And like all of the others, there is a bit of mild language.

Lori Keeton

Wendell Berry’s novels of Port William are like coming home. Read just one and you’ll want to read another and another. You’ll soon fall into a calming place where the land is honored and neighbors are your family. You’ll get to know the steadfast and faithful people that inhabit its hills. There is Jayber Crow, the barber with a knack for listening, Mat Feltner, a stand-up man with a heart for his family, Burley and Jarrat Coulter, brothers trying to make amends, Old Jack Beechum, an ambitious farmer who has lived a long, difficult life. And there are others who have stories to tell.

Berry tells each story through a lens of love for the people of his beloved Kentucky and for the land to which he is devoted. His prose is soft and peaceful all the while giving his readers a portrayal of an intimate rural lifestyle of the past foreign to many modern ways of living.

There was never anything like it - that black humus, built up under the forest for thousands of years. There it was, dark as shadows under the trees, abundant and deep, waiting to be opened. Surely no dirt was ever more responsive or more alive. You could believe, for once, that the earth might give back to a man more than it took from him. It welcomed him everywhere he put down his hand or his foot or his seed. It had advanced through millennia to break itself open on the coulter of his plow; he could not have helped but feel that jointure breaking in every nerve.

This is now my fourth Wendell Berry novel and each and every one I am struck by the rich eloquence of his writing and the ebb and flow of its cadence. It is meant to be savored and enjoyed with such attention and veneration. Berry is a story teller and he gives his poetic voice to his characters. In A Place on Earth, Berry reveals the heart and the love of the Feltners, Coulters, Catletts and others in a story of loss that leaves noone immune. Each loss is personal and heartbreaking with depth that can only be imagined.

The story takes place during WW2 when sons have left for the war leaving behind concerned and hopeful family and friends. Those remaining endure unforeseen hardships and traumas. Under pressures and pain, this community looks out for and takes care of each other and the bonds of friendship become even more necessary. Friends quietly and reverently sit together in comfort without need for words.

And that is the theme of their talk. The sense of time passing. The sense of the future as a reality they will not quite accept until it is upon them.

Berry is also in tune to the silly and jovial attitudes of some of his characters. There is humor among the sadness and I believe it is because he uses just the right characters to bring some really laughable moments.

If you haven’t read anything by Wendell Berry, I urge you to go now and find one of his novels of Port William and I guarantee you will be struck by this farmer and writer who values and respects the power of nature and our earth.

Laura

What can I say? It’s a Berry. The people and the place.

Tom Mathews

Classic Berry. A gentle story of life in the small town of Port William, where life goes slowly, where war is far away and impacts the town only when its sons stop writing home. If you have ever read any of Berry's books, you will be glad to renew acquaintance with some of the Port William residents and meet others for the first time.

My thanks to Lawyer and all the folks at the On the Southern Literary Trail group for giving me the opportunity to read and discuss this and many other fine books.

Peggy

My favorite place to revisit, Port William, Kentucky!! Not just the place, but the folks, the sense of community, and as they loving refer to themselves “membership”. I love these souls, whom are the creation of Wendell Berry’s extraordinary mind and storytelling.

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