Hannah Coulter

By Wendell Berry

11,091 ratings - 4.34* vote

Hannah Coulter is Wendell Berry's seventh novel and his first to employ the voice of a woman character in its telling. Hannah, the now-elderly narrator, recounts the love she has for the land and for her community. She remembers each of her two husbands, and all places and community connections threatened by twentieth-century technologies. Hannah Coulter is Wendell Berry's seventh novel and his first to employ the voice of a woman character in its telling. Hannah, the now-elderly

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Book details

Paperback, 190 pages
September 30th 2005 by Counterpoint LLC

(first published 2004)

Original Title
Hannah Coulter
1593760787 (ISBN13: 9781593760786)
Edition Language

Community Reviews


“This is the story of my life, that while I lived it weighed upon me and pressed against me and filled all my senses to overflowing and now is like a dream dreamed.”

There aren’t too many writers out there that can offer such a sense of peace to my entire being while reading. Wendell Berry’s words are like that soothing cold cloth that was laid upon your forehead by a loved one when you were a young child. That dish of ice cream to ease a sore throat. The little comforts of a bedroom and the caretaker’s gentle hands are what stay with you even more than the sickness and fever that overwhelmed you at the time. That’s how I felt while reading this beautiful novel. My anxieties were laid to rest. With a bit of luck, what I recall later will not be the worries that have surrounded us but the feelings of togetherness with even just a few people that have made it all worthwhile.

“If you were bred to the plains or the seashore or the mountains, maybe you wouldn’t enjoy it here. But if the Port William neighborhood looks at all like home to you, then you may think this a pleasant place, or even moving and beautiful. It surely is a place like no other.”

I’ve been to Port William while holding Wendell Berry’s tender hand several times now. It does indeed feel like home to me. It’s a small town that exists like a real place and these characters more ‘real’ than some people I see about me each day. If I could pack my bags and go, I’d head there right now. Port William is likened to a “membership”, a community that welcomes you into it should you be inclined to get to know it and become a true part of it. It’s not for those that like to live in the fast lane. It’s not for those that steer away from the intimacies of real friendships and love. It is a place where you can go to heal and make a life among those that revere simpler times and basic human needs. It is not a place where only good things happen – no such fantasies exist. There will be grief and sorrow to overcome. Life comes and passes as it does anywhere else. But I believe one can truly feel alive here. You finally comprehend what it means to live and love.

“But grief is not a force and has no power to hold. You only bear it. Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.”

This is Hannah Coulter’s story. If you’ve not read Berry’s writing before, then I will tell you that you don’t need to read his books in any particular order. Each will highlight a different member of the community, but will also pull in others that you will come to recognize as old friends. This is a story of Hannah’s life, first deprived of a mother as hers died while she was just twelve years old. Hannah’s grandmother then becomes a mother to her, offering her the love that a stepmother refused to share. And what a lifesaver this grandmother proved to be – she’s a truly wonderful human being! I knew right from the start this one was going to break my heart, not from sadness but from the beauty of love freely and selflessly given.

“And Grandmam, as I have seen in looking back, was the decider of my fate. She shaped my life, without of course knowing what my life would be… I was a piece of soft clay. I couldn’t be that way for long, but while I was she was determined to mold me into something that could stay alive.”

This is also the story of Hannah’s two marriages and her life as a mother and grandmother. I found myself nodding, weeping, and pausing many times throughout in order to just sit and think. Children grow up and move away, losing interest in taking over the responsibilities of a farming life. Life has its share of burdens and one learns to get through them as best he or she can with the support of those that care deeply for one another. What I take away the most from Berry’s novels is the theme of love – how if you open up your heart, there always seems to be room for more. It may come and go, there are heartaches and loss, but it’s always there waiting for us as a gift to both give and receive if only we allow it. If you are in need of a respite for your soul (and who isn’t these days?!), please don’t put off reading Wendell Berry any longer.

“Sometimes too I could see that love is a great room with a lot of doors, where we are invited to knock and come in. Though it contains all the world, the sun, moon, and stars, it is so small as to be also in our hearts. It is in the hearts of those who choose to come in. Some do not come in. Some may stay out forever. Some come in together and leave separately. Some come in and stay, until they die, and after.”

“Time doesn’t stop. Your life doesn’t stop and wait until you get ready to start living it.”


Wendell Berry, perhaps more than any other author, understands the connection people have with place. Not only this, but he has captured the wisdom and grace that age provides to those willing to understand and to learn. This book is profound and prophetic in so many ways--it weaves an emotional web of beauty, happiness, life, faith, and hope. Yet Berry is not a naive optimist. He understands the pain of life and captures it as well as any of the other range of human emotions.

Hannah Coulter tells her story as an old woman--with the wisdom, grace, charity, and love of a mature Christian woman. She recounts her early years in Shagbark, how her mother died while she was still a young girl and the attachment she developed with her grandmother. She moves to Hargrave shortly after graduating from high school. She begins her connection with the people of Port William here. I won't spoil any more of the story, but she becomes an integral member of the community and witnesses the decline of the family farm--indeed is a part of it.

Her story is as authentic, as true, as any real person you'll meet. Berry exhibits a skill for understanding people, place, authority, youth, old age, and just about anything he puts into words. The novel is simply beautiful--reverent as one other GoodReads reviewer wrote. Berry recognizes the sanctity of life--of people--all people. Each person is their own in this novel and he gives them the dignity they deserve as people made in the image of God.

Hannah Coulter makes you want to be a better person--a better parent, a better spouse, a better image-bearer. Be gracious, be charitable. Love people, love your place, love your life, be content with where and what you are. This novel is out of step with modernity--Berry in fact rejects modernity and its impersonal disconnection from family, place, and neighbor. You'll yearn for what has been lost, and hope for what might be restored.


The best thing about returning to Port William was to reunite with Berry’s gentleness. This time, the voice of Hannah Coulter, steady, measured but full of reposed emotion, took me back to a place where neighbors were family, where life couldn’t be understood without compassion and gratitude.
It’s always humbling to meet a character that speaks of life without regrets and of people with unselfish love in spite of the unfairness that often befell upon her. I will certainly remember Hannah’s meditations on being a devoted spouse, caring mother and relentless worker, and her wise conclusions about old age and what to expect from others based on what you have given to them.

Reading Berry’s composed, gentle prose was a great comfort in this time of upheaval and confusion. A reminder that people are beautiful, that every day spent with those we love is a gift and that today, even confined at home, might be the peak of happiness in my life. So thanks for the reminder, Mr. Berry.


I am making a gift to myself, a promise to read all of Wendell Berry’s novels. Hannah Coulter is my latest stop on that journey though Port William, and, as always, I am sitting after closing the book with misty eyes and a full heart.

How can one be so wise and yet so human? I felt inclined to mark every other passage, but in the end, I didn’t want to step outside the story even long enough to drag the yellow marker across the page. As is so often the case with Berry, this is not a plot driven story, so much as a tribute to life and the life of Hannah particularly. It is a tribute to the resilience of the human soul and the beauty of existence itself.

Hannah profoundly understands love--that it has a scent, an electric touch, a shape, and that it comes in as many varieties as there are people.

Love in this world doesn’t come out of thin air. It is not something thought up. Like ourselves, it grows out of the ground. It has a body and a place.

She understands the nature of resentment and forgiveness:

But I knew at the same instant that my resentment was gone, just gone. And the fear of her that was once so big in me, where was it? And who was this poor suffer who stood there with me? ‘Yes, Ivy, I know you,” I said, and I sounded kind. I didn’t understand exactly what had happened until the thought of her woke me up in the middle of the night, and I was saying to myself, “You have forgiven her.” I had. My old hatred and contempt and fear, that I had kept so carefully so long, were gone, and I was free.

And, she understands loss:

I was changed by Nathan’s death, because I had to be. Our life together here was over. It was life alone that had to go on. The strand had slackened. I had begun the half-a-life you have when you have a whole life that you can only remember.

Throughout the novel, she gives good advice to anyone who might be listening, but perhaps the most valuable advice is this:

You mustn’t wish for another life. You mustn’t want to be somebody else. What you must do is this: ‘Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks.’ I am not all the way capable of so much, but those are the right instructions.

I know why I keep wishing to return to Port William. It is the same impulse that makes you want to go visit an old friend and rock on the porch and share some memories and laughs that only the two of you can ever share. It is the reason you take out the picture books and stare at the faces of the past, the ones that are gone forever, and think, “but they aren’t gone, they are alive in me, they cannot wholly die until I die as well.”

Some authors give you characters, Wendell Berry gives you friends.

Diane Barnes

I had to sit for awhile and collect myself after finishing this one. Nathan's funeral hit me hard, Hannah's worry over her children's lives in the modern world were familiar, the loss of the old ways because of progress that can't be stopped or ignored, but that destroys so much that is good in human relationships; reading about these things in the midst of this year of 2020, when change is occurring exponentially day after day, has left me emotionally drained. In a good way, because, after all, it is Port William.

This was my second read of this novel. The first was many years ago and was my first Wendell Berry book, and made me a lasting fan. It was a great introduction to the people of Port William. This time around, these people had become my friends, I knew more about them and the things they had been through. I could laugh at Burley Coulter's antics, recognize Jayber Crow, sympathize with the Feltners, and watch Andy Catlett grow up. Port William is my "happy place". I am so grateful to Mr. Berry for creating this little pocket of civilization.


My introduction to Wendell Berry was his novel “A World Lost.” Truth be told I was not impressed, and I remember several GR friends offered suggestions on other books by him to read. I very much liked this novel. The writing/prose was par excellence.

The story line was excellent. It wasn’t sappy. Hannah tells the story and her remembrances held my attention throughout. I very much liked Hannah and her first husband Virgil and her second husband Nathan. And all sorts of people around them…Hannah’s Grandmam, Virgil’s mother and father who took in Hannah as if she were their daughter, Burley Coulter who was Nathans’ uncle and so on…And I want to read more about Port William. ?

There was one chapter that took place outside of Port William and it was Okinawa at the time of WWII. Berry is unflinching in his writing of what soldiers had to go through—Nathan fought over there and never wanted to discuss what he had been through with Hannah. Yet that surely affected him, and she later on in her life did some research to learn what he might have gone through. Hell on earth.

I took two pages of notes, and I made comments at three places regarding the beautiful writing…or the wisdom that seeped through the pages into my brain. Here are the passages that struck me, but I must emphasize they are only just samples of the rich writing in this book…
• From Hannah: What you won’t see, but what I see always, is the pattern of our life here that made and kept it as you see it now, all the licks and steps and rounds of work, all the comings and goings, all the days and years. A lifetime’s knowledge shimmers on the face of the land in the mind of person who knows it, walking over it, and it is never fully handed on to anybody else, but has been mainly lost, generation after generation, going back and forth back to the first Indians. And now the history of Nathan’s and my life here is fading away. When I am gone, it too will be mostly gone.
• From Hannah when she makes a remark about her children: “…I said, “I just wanted them to have a better chance than I had.” Nathan said, “Don’t complain about the chance you had,” in the same exact way he used to tell the boys, “Don’t cuss the weather.” Sometimes you can say dreadful things without knowing it. Nathan understood this better than I did. Like several of his one-sentence conversations, this one stuck in my mind and finally changed it. The change came too late, maybe, but it turned my mind inside out like a sock. … Was I sorry that I had known my parents and Grandmam and Ora Finley and the Catletts and the Feltners, and that I had married Virgil and come to live in Port William, and that I had lived on after Virgil’s death to marry Nathan and come to our place to raise our family and live among the Coulters and the rest of our family? Well, that was the chance I had. …The chance you had is the life you’ve got. You can make complaints about what people, including you, make of their lives after they have got them, and about what people make of other people’s lives, even about your children being gone, but you mustn’t wish for another life. You mustn’t want to be somebody else.
• Jim: This is Hannah reflecting on her life and it is only part of a longer passage that is beautiful: “But you have a life too that you remember. It stays with you. You have lived a life in the breath and pulse and living light of the present, and your memories of it, remembered now, are of a different life in a different world and time. When you remember the past, you are not remembering it as it was. You are remembering it as it is. It is a vision or a dream, present with you in the present, alive with you in the only time you are alive.”


My edition is from a publishing house that I have not heard of, Shoemaker & Hoard (2004).

Em Lost In Books

A generic and a simple story.


[2.5] I am both disappointed and unmoved by Hannah Coulter I knew it was going to be a "quiet" novel about an elderly woman's contemplations about her past. For a while I enjoyed her memories. And Berry writes well.

But the novel is so insular it stopped making sense to me. Hannah Coulter lives in Kentucky in the 1930s to early 2000s yet she is completely cut off from the outside world. The only outside event mentioned is WWII, even though Hannah and Nathan have a son who seems to have been of age to be drafted in Vietnam. Vietnam is never mentioned. There is no racism or race in this novel. There are no blacks in Port William? The Coulters live on a farm with "employees." But who are they? Around the half way point I became too distracted by what wasn't mentioned to enjoy the novel.


This was a perfect follow-up to recently reading Berry’s Jayber Crow. It gave me a chance to revisit the fictitious farming community of Port William in north central Kentucky, which barber Jayber Crow considered as a form of heaven. In this tale, published four years later in 2004, Hannah marries into a clan of farmers in Port Royal at the onset of World War 2 and finds her version of bliss there. She records her memories, reflecting back from a point where she is an isolated widow at age 78. Her gospel is of love, and thankfulness:
There is no “better place” than this, not in this world. And it is by the place we’ve got, and our love for it and our keeping of it, that this world is joined to Heaven.

Hannah assumes a lifetime “membership” in an extended family and their neighbors who work together and help each other. They cleave to her through her loss and grieving over her first husband, Virgil, a “missing in action” casualty at the Battle of the Bulge. And they come round several years later in support of her love and marriage to Nathan Coulter, one who survived the war, but who would never talk about the horrors he experienced in Okinawa beyond saying, “Ignorant boys, killing each other.”

The world events impinging upon the home front had dual effects. On the one hand, the war had a way of making their rural life seem small: Our minds were driven out of the old boundaries into the thought of absolute loss, absolute emptiness, in a world that seemed larger even than the sky that held it.

Paradoxically, it also reinforced the value of their special island of sanity and caring. For Nathan: He had come back after the war because he wanted to. He was where he wanted to be. As I too was by then, he was a member of Port William. …members of Port William aren’t trying to “get someplace.” They think they are someplace.

They build up a family farm together and raise her daughter with Virgil and two sons of their own. The story Hannah revisits of her courtship with Nathan is movingly rendered, a part of the path to be bound into community: Love in this world doesn’t come out of thin air. It is not something thought up. Like ourselves, it grows out of the ground. It has a body and a place.

Whereas the novel Jayber Crow had a focus on the assaults upon traditional agrarian ways after the war due to the rise of agribusiness, Hannah Coulter dwells on the decline of family farming due to the next generation of children taking up work in cities. While she maintains a fervent hope that one of her grandchildren will take over the farm, her memory alone is a way to keep her people and their way of life alive:
When you remember the past, you are not remembering it as it was. You are remembering it as it is. It is a vision or a dream, present with you in the present, alive with you in the only time you are alive.

This is the seventh of eight independent novels of this place, a record supplemented by dozens of short stories. I can see how it is considered by some as a special distillation by Berry of what Port William has to teach us. Given that the community seems a lot like that of his own rural origin in Kentucky and of the site of the homestead he established in his 30s, it is natural that he uses his stories to illustrate the vision behind his essays and activist work. I imagine many of my Goodreads friends would find this book too bland for its want of dramatic plotting or might object to violations of the rule of “telling instead of showing”, given how Hannah sums up so much in broad strokes. There is a message pointed to by the story, but does that make it preaching?

For me, I don’t feel preached at, but more like the beneficiary of the poet in Berry. Judge for yourself in the following passage:
One of the happiest moments of my walks is when I get to where I can hear the branch. The water comes down in a hurry, tossing itself this way and that as it tumbles among the broken pieces of old sea bottom. The stream seems to be talking, saying any number of things as it goes along. … If our place has a voice, this is it. And it is not talking to you. You can’t understand a thing it is saying. You walk up and stand beside it, loving it, and you know it doesn’t care whether you love it or not. The steam and woods don’t care if you love them. The place doesn’t care if you love it. For your own sake you had better love it. For the sake of all else you love, you had better love it.

My rural background and appreciation for Berry’s advocacy of small farmers perhaps makes me more receptive to the paean for a disappearing way of life than others. The rhythms of the seasons determine so much about the rhythms of life in this community, and it makes a nostalgic song I love to hear. As a reader, I feel a sense of bounty, which is vividly focused in this passage:
You look around presently, and it is summer. It has been dry for a while, maybe, and not it has rained. The world is so full and abundant it is like a pregnant woman carrying a child in one arm and leading another by the hand. Every puddle in the lane is ringed with sipping butterflies that fly up in a flutter when you walk past in the late morning on your way to get the mail.

Mark Porton

Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berryis one of my favourite books of 2020.

The story is narrated by Hannah Coulter and centres around a fictional town called Port William (I looked it up on Maps, with no joy) in a Kentucky farming community. Berry takes us across several generations, introducing the reader to the family, relatives, lovers and friends Hannah encounters throughout her life. I was worried I wouldn’t remember them all, but Berry treats the reader with absolute care in this regard. We learn about them slowly, in aliquots, he throws in reminders of who is who – this reader had no trouble remembering them all!

The real star of this piece is the prose. My first Berry book, I just fell into his velvet glove. He described the town of Port William and surrounds beautifully. He dedicates himself to painting a picture, but more importantly he gives the physical surrounds a life.

It’s as if the place exists, lives and owns its history, present and future in spite of the characters, but also because of them They’re intertwined, and separate. I hope that isn’t too garbled and makes some sort of sense.

The loves of her life in Virgil and Nathan, occupy two very different times, and Hannah is a very different person in each of these relationships – but the love stories as depicted, are presented so beautifully and so compellingly. This book challenged me to think about relationships as being transient in nature, we pass through them and they pass through us, no matter how heavy the ordeal. It’s all temporary, our relationships have a past, present and future – even if the person isn’t around anymore.

Berry writes such wonderful stuff like:

Living without expectations is hard but, when you can do it, good. Living without hope is harder, and that is bad. You have to have hope, and you mustn’t shirk it.

This next one really struck a chord with me:

But you are still living, and living your life, expectations subtracted, has a shape, and the shape of it includes the past. The absent and the dead are in it

Too right, I read and re-read this passage, I put the book (kindle) on my chest and thought about my Dad essentially, my best friend who passed a couple of years back. He is a part of my life and he’s “still in it”. Sometimes reading a passage like this is needed to remind us.

There was one interesting passage later in the book, describing a WWII battle scene in Okinawa involving Nathan. Jesus receives a big mention in a very significant way. It’s not as though any of the characters, or Nathan for that matter, seemed particularly Christian – so it wasn’t mentioned in that context – it just popped up. I thought it was a bit “preachy”, but I may have missed the point.

Hannah is a wonderful character and those around her are described with warmth and depth. The family was not without problems and difficulties but – they were all wrapped up in a cosy quilt of love, history, familiarity and hope.

I’m not a handy guy by any stretch, but this book makes me want to throw on a pair of overalls (if I had them) and go outside, with a piece of straw in my mouth and hammer something into place. Or chop something into pieces. In fact, I might go and do that right now……..maybe I could milk my Pup? …………*Pup looking nervous*.

Wonderful stuff – I am going to read a lot of this guy’s work. Isn’t reading the best?

5 Stars