Oh my. The first story in this collection “Pray Without Ceasing” has made me a Berry fan for life. Thus far I had only read Hannah Coulter
and was mildly impressed. But for readers who appreciate the long story and novella form, this story is a must read. The set up of theme and how it spun itself out was absolutely stunning.
In this story, Andy Catlett’s grandmother tells him how his great-grandfather, Ben Feltner, was murdered in 1912 by his friend Thad Coulter. (If you have read any of Berry’s Port William stories you will know names – Feltner, Coulter, and Catlett.) Thad Coulter, at the age of 72 has just lost his farm, and is a desperate man who in a drunken state turns to the one person he hopes to hear him out. Ben listens, but eventually turns him out, hoping to talk to Thad after he sobers up. But obviously things do not turn work out that way.
The story is really about how a close-knit community lives, dies and continues to live together over and during time. How ancestors were and still are. How instead of creating generational enmity, the actions of one or a few can create generational tolerance and forgiveness. How tragedy can be overcome rather than expanded upon. A lesson as important today as it was yesterday and will be tomorrow.
This story was first published in The Southern Review, Fall 1992.
The other long story in this book, “Fidelity” is not about the fidelity of marriage, but that of family, friendship and community. In this story, Burley Coulter, one of Port William’s biggest characters and social mainstays is dying in a hospital, one town over. His nephew, Nathan Coulter, knowing that this is not how Burley would have wanted to finish his life, steals Burley away in the middle of the night to allow him to die in amongst the land and trees that he loved. The story plays out within the community on the one line Nathan told his wife, Hannah. “If anyone asks, you only know that I went to Louisville.” Of course, this is illegal activity, and a detective is set upon the case. How the story plays out is absolutely delightful, and typical of Port William’s tight-knit community.
Only the last story left me unimpressed. The two middle stories were short and heart warming tales of love and well, fidelity.