Fidelity: Five stories

By Wendell Berry

1,916 ratings - 4.37* vote

"Berry richly evokes Port William's farmlands and hamlets, and his characters are fiercely individual, yet mutually protective in everything they do. . . . His sentences are exquisitely constructed, suggesting the cyclic rhythms of his agrarian world."--New York Times Book Review. "Berry richly evokes Port William's farmlands and hamlets, and his characters are fiercely individual, yet mutually protective in everything they do. . . . His sentences are exquisitely constructed,

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Book details

Paperback, 208 pages
September 28th 1993 by Pantheon

(first published 1992)

Original Title
Fidelity: Five Stories
ISBN
0679748318 (ISBN13: 9780679748311)
Edition Language
English

Community Reviews

Candi

"They practiced an old-fashioned independence, an old-fashioned generosity, and an old-fashioned fidelity to their word and their friends."

The above quote is one I pulled from one of the five short stories offered here by Wendell Berry, an author I can easily call a favorite after just reading three of his works. The quote, however, truly sums up the people that we meet in all of his books, those of Port William, Kentucky. I first fell in love with Berry’s writing over a year ago when I was introduced to his novel, Jayber Crow. The meditative tone and the simple yet elegant prose spoke directly to me and soothed my soul. I knew then I would eventually read everything Berry had to offer.

In this collection, I met some characters with whom I was already familiar, and met some new ones as well. Even in his short works, Berry is able to convey the true essence of his characters. You will nod your head and feel you understand exactly where they are coming from. There is something about the family unit that is just so beautiful in the people of this small agrarian community. You feel as if perhaps we are sadly missing out on the real importance of family, friendship and community in this day and age. I felt nostalgic for a past that I was never really a part of to begin with, yet felt that I had been somehow because of the power of this writing.

"She had learned to think of herself as living and working at the center of a wonderful provisioning: the kitchen and garden, hog pen and smokehouse, henhouse and cellar of her own household; the little commerce of giving and taking that spoked out along the paths connecting her household to the others; Port William on its ridgetop in one direction, Goforth in its valley in the other; and all this at the heart of the weather and the world."

Berry walks alongside us through acts of admirable and courageous forgiveness, we question and then understand the power of true love, we ache for a man come home from war and welcome him with open arms along with his family, we yearn to allow our loved ones to die with dignity, we stand up for one another at all cost, and we never forget those who may need us in times of catastrophe. I felt a part of this loving and generous community for a few short days and am grateful for it.

This collection would make a wonderful introduction to Berry’s work. It will appeal to those that favor quiet, contemplative writing, perhaps like that found in much of Kent Haruf’s novels. 4.5 stars

"But even the unknown past is present in us, its silence as persistent as a ringing in the ears."

Diane Barnes

I believe I could happily spend the rest of my life reading books written by Wendell Berry to the exclusion of other authors. Picking them up one after the other, then starting all over again. His words have the same effect on me as Willa Cather's writing; quiet, gentle, persuasive, making me feel the world is a better place, and leaving me with a sense of peace.

There are 5 stories in this collection, all within the confines of Port William but spanning the entire history of the community. The first story, "Pray Without Ceasing" and the title story " Fidelity" are the longest and best. The other three "A Jonquil for Mary Penn", "Making It Home", and "Are You All Right" show us the importance of love and acceptance and a sense of home and belonging.

The title story, "Fidelity" is about Burley Coulter. He happens to be my favorite character in the Port William books, and I have long wished he would have his own book, telling me more about his life. This story is it ; his life and death and loves and friends.

"What was best in him, maybe, was the pleasure he took in pleasurable things. We'll not forget his laughter. He looked at the world and found it good." I only hope my own friends can say the same about me when I'm gone. I think the same is true of Wendell Berry.

Sara

This book of short stories is written by Wendell Berry, a philosopher, poet, and purveyor of human souls. If you have not ever read any of his work, you are missing something remarkable. This collection would be an excellent place to begin.

Pray Without Ceasing is the story of one friend killing another, a senseless murder and one that might destroy two families instead of just two men. But in the fictional, but very real, world of Port William, people overcome the baser side of themselves and the result is plaintively moving. Berry writes so purely and so beautifully that he can make me weep over a short story as if I had spent much more than a brief hour and sixty pages of reading.

”People sometimes talk of God’s love as if it’s a pleasant thing. But it’s terrible, in a way. Think of all it includes. It included Thad Coulter, drunk and mean and foolish, before he killed Mr. Feltner, and it included him afterward.”

Process that.

******************
A Jonquil for Mary Penn is another example of Berry’s ability to see beyond the surface and explore the depths of a person and their loves and insecurities. He might be the best at describing farm life and making you feel the blasts of cold and the joys of spring of any author I have ever read, for he captures in equal measure the isolation and the deep sense of community, and the personal joy of love.

At times she knew with a joyous ache that she completed him, just as she knew with the same joy that she needed him and he completed her. How beautiful a thing it was, she thought to be a half, to be completed by such another half. When had there ever been such a yearning of halves toward each other, such a longing, even in quarrels, to be whole? The wholeness came upon them as a rush of light around them and within them, so that she felt they must be shining in the dark.

******************
Making it Home is the return of the soldier from a foreign war, the unreality of finding home unchanged when the man has been changed irrevocably. There is nothing sad, but something very poignant about this story, and I finished it with tears swimming in my eyes and echoes of The Prodigal Son vibrating in my head.

Tell your Granny to set on another plate. For we have our own that was gone and is come again.

******************
Fidelity . I know why the book took the name of this story. It is the story that encapsulates all this book is about; the people, the place, the sense of belonging, the heart of friendship and family. Burley Coulter is dying, the same Burley Coulter we saw at fifteen on the day Thad Coulter shot Ben Feltner. He is a man who belongs to the natural world of Port William and to its people in a way that few others do.

Loving him, wanting to help him, they had given him over to “the best of modern medical care”--which meant, as they now saw, that they had abandoned him.

Too late, they realize that Burley should have been allowed to go back to the land, in his own place, among his own people. I particularly loved this story, because it is about not only letting go, but how we let go, and I think that is a dilemma that many of us struggle with in our lives, as we grapple with the machinery that keeps us alive past our usefulness or keeps us locked in a sterile room with limited visiting hours, instead of resting in our own bed surrounded by loved ones.

He has disappeared into his people and his place, not to be found in this world again forever.

That is an eulogy that any one of us could be proud of.

******************
Are You Alright? The final story is just a lovely vignette that ties up the book and puts it to rest. I think it is significant because everyone is alright, even those who are not, because they are in their places, surrounded by friends and family, understood and forgiven. They are fine, because they fit into a world that they love and that loves them right back. They have substance and someone who cares enough to brave the blackwater to see if they are alright.

I would like to say a thank you to openlibrary.org for making this work available to me at no charge.

Wyndy

“When I stand in the road that passes through Port William, I am standing in the strata of my history that go down through the known past into the unknown; the blacktop rests on state gravel, which rests on county gravel, which rests on the creek rock and cinders laid down by the town when it was still mostly beyond the reach of the county; and under the creek rock and cinders is the dirt track of the town’s beginning, the buffalo trace that was the way we came.”

This powerful collection of five short stories serves as my introduction to the beautiful writing of Wendell Berry and his fictional rural town called Port William, Kentucky. This town has a long history of farming and vibrates with decades of characters any reader will instantly recognize and yearn for, whether you’re Southern or not. Berry is a lifelong Kentucky farmer, writer and activist, and his gentle, sensitive prose takes us back to a time long gone and washes away all the ugly in the world . . . for a few hours at least. I can’t imagine anyone not being moved by some shared experience or distant memory kindled by these pages. There are so many layers of humanness here - desperation, forgiveness, humility, gratitude, honor, fortitude, kindness - and so many layers of landscape - furrowed fields, sunlit ridgetops, barbed wire fences, bullet-torn flesh, clouds of darkness.

From my dictionary: “Fidelity: faithfulness to a person, cause, or belief, demonstrated by continuing loyalty and support.” The perfect title for these stories and these people. This is not a book for plot junkies. But I have found a new author to love - especially for those times when my soul needs a lift.


Laurie

"A Jonquil for Mary" -- captured that moment when a young wife realizes her husband truly loves her, truly sees her -- I loved that story's ending. All five stories in this too small collection show Berry's gift of painting the ordinary lives of people with compassion and fullness -- "Making it Home" was another favorite -- oh they are all worth reading more than once.

Clif Hostetler

This book is a collection of five short stories by Wendell Berry. The setting of all the stories is the fictional Fort William community in Kentucky.

Pray Without Ceasing is a story is being recalled from earlier times of a distraught man killing his friend. It had the potential of the beginning of a Hatfield-McCoy sort of family feud. But cooler heads prevailed, and the Fort William community has been peaceful ever since.
"People sometimes talk of God’s love as if it’s a pleasant thing. But it’s terrible, in a way. Think of all it includes. It included Thad Coulter, drunk and mean and foolish, before he killed Mr. Feltner, and it included him afterward.”
A Jonquil for Mary Penn is a story that sees beyond the surface and explores the depths of a person and their loves and insecurities.
At times she knew with a joyous ache that she completed him, just as she knew with the same joy that she needed him and he completed her. How beautiful a thing it was, she thought to be a half, to be completed by such another half. When had there ever been such a yearning of halves toward each other, such a longing, even in quarrels, to be whole? The wholeness came upon them as a rush of light around them and within them, so that she felt they must be shining in the dark.
Making it Home is the story of a two day walk of a soldier returning from a foreign war. The story contrasts his finding home unchanged while the man himself has been greatly changed.
Tell your Granny to set on another plate. For we have our own that was gone and is come again.
Fidelity is the story from which the book takes its title. It's long enough to be considered a novella. The story encapsulates the sense of belonging and the heart of friendship and family. This story deals with the problem of the role of modern medicine that can keep dying people alive longer than perhaps is wise.
He has disappeared into his people and his place, not to be found in this world again forever.
Are You Alright? The final story ties up the book with a story that puts it to rest. It tells of checking up on those who have been isolated by high water from a flood. It's an appropriate end to this collection of stories by assuring us that everyone is in their place and at peace.

Mmars

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.

Laura

If you still haven’t read Berry, you really are missing out on something that makes you better. All the emotions are present. Family and community, life and death at its best when Berry shares it with you.

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