A World Lost

By Wendell Berry

1,191 ratings - 4.11* vote

Andy Catlett is nine years old when his Uncle Andrew is murdered and it destroys his sense of the order of things. Wendell Berry tackles the problem of truth and recollection as Andy Catlett gathers the details of this tragedy from the fragile memories of the townspeople. Tenderly, yet with directness, this short novel encompasses a changing way of life at the end of World Andy Catlett is nine years old when his Uncle Andrew is murdered and it destroys his sense of the order of things.

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Book details

Paperback, 160 pages
September 1st 1997 by Counterpoint

(first published 1996)

Original Title
A World Lost
1887178546 (ISBN13: 9781887178549)
Edition Language

Community Reviews


4.5 stars

"The world that I knew had changed into a world that I knew only in part; perhaps I understood that I would not be able ever again to think of it as a known world."

It might seem that this was a poor choice of a book, given the state of our world right now. I hesitated only momentarily before downloading it to my kindle. My instinct told me, however, that I could rely on Wendell Berry to soothe my soul. I was right. Despite the fact that A World Lost is a story about a senseless death, I knew that somehow Berry would whisper in my ear that it was going to be okay. His writing has an easy, refined quality that reassures you in its telling.

"We can love, it seems, beyond imagining. But how little we can understand!"

This little book is told from the point of view of Andy Catlett – from an older Andy Catlett looking back several decades to the time when he was nine years old. So of course it has a wonderfully nostalgic feel to it. Andy is a character I have come across in other Berry novels so it was like visiting an old friend. The young Andy, like most children, observes closely what happens around him – not always quite understanding, but yet soaking in so much. He earnestly tries to make sense of the adult world. Boy do I remember those days. I still find myself desperately trying to fathom the words and actions of my own contemporaries more often than I should! Andy was content with the simpler, carefree life. Not that it was easy; his grandparents and parents were hardworking farmers. What he loved most was to run about the countryside, either alone or with a pal.

"All at once the countryside felt big and easy around me, and I was glad to be alone in it."

He also appreciated sitting and listening to the elder generations talk. As this is told from the older, wiser Andy, we see him come to terms with some of the things he maybe didn’t quite “get” as a youngster. How often do we all think back to our own childhoods with the desire to put some of the pieces together? Naturally there are still those gaps, both in our memories as well as in life itself. Not all could ever be revealed to us, and Andy has come to know this.

"I learned that all human stories in this world contain many lost or unwritten or unreadable or unwritable pages and that the truth about us, though it must exist, though it must lie all around us every day, is mostly hidden from us, like birds’ nests in the woods."

Wendell Berry’s writing is something so special. You will not find dramatic plots – even the big events are written with a great sense of reserve. His emphasis is on the internal lives of his people, the stirring connections between individuals, and the beauty and reverence for the land. Yes, A World Lost deals with death and grief. Yet, despite the melancholic tone at times, it always returns to that feeling of peace that Berry’s words and reflections leave in your heart. I have found this to be true in all of his writing I’ve experienced so far. I’ve not yet exhausted all of his work, so I’m grateful that I can visit my Port William friends again when I am in need of more comfort.

"A story, I see, is not a life. A story must follow a line; the telling must begin and end. A life, on the contrary, would be impossible to fix in time, for it does not begin within itself, and it does not end."

Diane Barnes

"The older I have got and the better acquainted among the dead, the plainer it has become to me that I live in the company of immortals".

Though these are Andy Catlett's words at the end of this book, this is exactly how I feel every time I read a Wendell Berry novel. I leave Port William happy to have been among old friends and family. I have shared their griefs and happiness, rejoiced at every little success, understood their reasoning, and was comforted by their very presence. It is one of the great pleasures of being a reader to be able to visit this world whenever I choose.


This was my introduction to Wendell Berry. I have heard very favorable comments about the author. This was a slim novel about a boy’s uncle, Uncle Andrew, who was murdered (the perpetrator was known, that was not an issue in the novel), and as the boy grew from boy to young man to older man he would be questioning why his uncle was murdered. He would ask his relatives and come away unsatisfied, and then eventually he went to newspaper accounts of the trial to try and get at the motive for the murder.

And that is more or less what the novel is about. Even as a slim novel, it was not enough for me. Wendell Berry describes Andy and relatives who are part of his sphere and the characters are OK…but they really to my mind, don’t figure into the plot or story line, and it just seemed to be filler to me. And I didn’t find Uncle Andrew to be much of a character to build a story around.

There was something unexpected near the end of the novel that came out of the blue and was a stunner and that was a plus to the novel. There were also a couple of places where I was struck by the beauty and clarity of the prose and Berry being able to encapsulate meaningful life issues into a couple of paragraphs but it wasn’t enough to leave me sufficiently impressed in my overall assessment of the this novel to give it a higher rating than I did. I hope with the next piece of writing I come across by Wendell Berry I can be more effusive in my praise.



Yet another brilliant Wendell Berry novel. I will be reading many more.

I have said this before, but Berry does not employ literary pyrotechnics, he does not need them. His style is graceful, lovely, filled with hope and yet infused with a melancholy that is realistic and sometimes even heartbreaking. His characters are among the richest I have ever read. They are people you wish you knew, but knowing that they exist in his pages is enough to comfort you that they could truly exist in this world.

I began reading this while sitting on a hidden little dock in the middle of a local nature reserve. My son was happily visiting his cousins, my daughter was at the reserve attending a nature class, and I had just finished running the trails for 75 minutes. I was exceedingly happy, but still jacked up from my run (turtles can get runner's high apparently). I sat on the dock looking out at one of the beautiful lakelets and the surrounding marshes. I remember feeling that being on that dock was the perfect metaphor for my love of Berry's writing. I was in this reserve which you would not know was even there from the interstate that passes by it. I was taken from the craziness of the world and let down from my running adrenaline simply by entering A World Lost and allowing Berry to provide me a peaceful spot. The view I had of my world at the moment was of an idyllic scene and yet the wind was blowing cattails across the water in a manner that imbued the setting with just a tinge of sadness--hard to explain. I had the same experience in the book; lovely and graceful writing, but all within the context of a death of a beloved uncle and a world lost to Andy Catlett.

"I have been here a fair amount of time, and slowly I have learned that my true home is not just this place but is also that company of immortals with whom I have lived here day by day. I live in their love, and I know something of the cost. Sometimes in the darkness of my own shadow I know that I could not see at all were it not for this old injury of love and grief, this little flickering lamp that I have watched beside for all these years."

Sarah Clarkson

Oh, oh, oh, I love Wendell Berry.

This is a short book about a little boy and the violent death of his uncle, but it is a profound study of human hearts, human loves, and all the little choices we make that so form the stories of everyone around us.

Also, such a sense of place, as always, pervades W.B.'s stories.


Oh, Mr. Wendell Berry. How is it you possess the ability to transport a reader to a different time and place through every sense imaginable? The humid warmth of a southern day, the coolness of pond water on a boy's skin as he takes a forbidden swim, the buzz and hum of the summer's insects.
If this weren't enough, you make us inhabit his every thought.

This story made me wish I'd been born a boy.
Before you jump to strange conclusions, let me explain. Girls often drape themselves in their mother's dresses, smear on their lipstick, and douse themselves in their perfume-- longing, I suppose for that far off, elusive stage of womanhood.

I know I did those things. But I what I remember doing more often, or rather what I have keener memories of, are the sights, sounds and smells surrounding the older men in my life-- particularly my grandfather. The scents of lake, mixed fuel for the boat engine, and fish will always catapult me back to summer days on the lake.

Andy Catlett spends a goodly portion of this book reminiscing similarly about his namesake uncle. Reading his descriptions of being caught in a sudden downpour with Uncle Andy ... to have him take his nephew under the outstretched "wings" of his canvas coat, protecting him from the rain. His feeling secure, safe ... and smells of pipe tobacco and sweat enveloping him in that warmth.

I was hit with the realization of how different it must be for boys to have these experiences with men. To observe and file away the antics, words, actions of these larger than life heroes in their midst. Something to attain when they reach manhood themselves.

A beautiful, short novel which does precisely that. And at the same time makes us question our own childhood memories and perceptions ... to wonder how well we truly did know those who had such an impact on us.

Andy Weston

Wendell Berry’s novella is told by Andy Catlett looking back to a summer when he was 9 years old, just at the end of the Second War. It is a story about family life that in a close knit farming town in Kentucky, a way of life that has been lost to us in these recent years of TV, internet and such a great awareness of stranger danger. Andy and his friends swim in creeks by themselves, hitchhike between towns tomsee friends and family, and work on their parents’ farms.

More specifically though, it is the story of how young Andy deals with the death of his favourite uncle, and the effect that has on the family around him. Berry’s writing is so powerful paints a picture in the reader’s mind strong enough to be familiar with the small town and its folks. It is a short and quite simple story that has a lasting effect.

Carl R.

Wendell breaks a lot of MFA rules, which is only one of the reasons I love him and his writing. A World Lost is set, as usual for Berry, in the northeastern Kentucky area of Port William (Now Carrollton) which has become Berry country among those who know and admire this unique author’s work. A World Lost has the flavor of a memoir because the voice of Andy Catlett is so strong, authentic, redolent with experience. There I go, breaking one of the MFA rules right along with Wendell--stringing those adjectives together. For example, in speaking of his uncle Andrew, his namesake, Andy says, “and then he writes the sentence--troubled, tender, hopeful, and, I know, hopeless--that binds me to him closer than my name ... .” Authors, the conventional wisdom says, are supposed to limit themselves to one or two, or risk lessening the impact of any of their descriptors, but if Berry can ... but I digress.
Berry spends many pages in this short work--at 151 pages, it seems to fit into the category of a novella--on backstory, description, musings. Again, a violation of the dictum that the modern author is well-advised to slice out those parts the reader is inclined to skip; namely, backstory, description, musing.
When our association began [the one between the protagonist, Andy Catlett, and his Uncle Andrew] I appointed myself his hired hand at a wage of a quarter a day. Since I was not big enough to do most of the jobs I wanted to do, I tended to spend the days in uneasy search for something I could do to justify my pay. I served him mostly as a sort of page, running errands, carrying water, opening gates, handing him things.
There’s a great deal of such seeming trivia. Long stretches with no dialogue. At this point, we know that Andrew has been murdered, but the narrator doesn’t know why or seem to care very much. He’s just remembering these mundanities. It’s one of the miracles of modern literature that there is still a place for Wendell Berry and his world of small farms (tobacco farms, no less), rural simplicity, and simple prose tailored to match the characters and landscape he describes. Yes, the characters are simple, with grandmothers saying such things as “Aren’t you the limit?” and village gossips sitting on porches and muttering over scandalous hemlines. But there are also murders and affairs and frauds and thefts. And with elegant simplicity Andy Catlett turns a Grandma Moses-like countryside into a universe of moral puzzles.
Andrew Catlett, the elder, you see, is a man of “plentitude”, one inclined to do “whatever he thought of”--as he and buddies with wonderful names like Yeager Stump like to put it. He is a man who is married and committed to a life of farming and moral limits, but is unable by nature to stay within those limits, try though he might. It’s as if, as Berry puts it, you built a henhouse and told a fox to go live in it. The creature and his habitat were simply unsuited to one another. Or, put another way, “Andrew and my father [Andrew’s brother] were as unlike as a bird and a tree.”
Much of the book is about the pain Andrew and his escapades and death visit upon the family and community. In one scene which I must count as among the most powerful I have ever read, Andy watches quietly as his father, mother, and grandmother, sitting in silence in the parlor, simultaneously begin weeping--weeping without a sound or words or significant movement, just letting tears flow until after a time they wipe the tears away and go on with life. After he reaches adulthood, when the people--father, grandmother, grandfather--for whom questions might cause the most pain have died, Andrew begins to explore the mystery behind his Uncle’s murder. He was too young at the time to be told much of the story, and no one let him in on the story as the years went by. I won’t tell you what he finds out except to tell you that it’s the exploration that really matters more than anything he discovers.
In sum, A World Lost could as well be entitled A World Found. My wife observed how much we lose these days by not sitting on porches and talking and sharing the stories of the past and present that make us and our families who we are. I’m sure that’s part of what Berry had in mind, here, and it’s quite true. The world lost that impressed me was the part of Andy Catlett that was the free spirit of his uncle. Andy became the kind of adult his father was, but always wished he could be the kind of adult his uncle was, the kind of man he was named for. “A man responsive mainly to impulses:desire, affection, amusement, self-abandon, sometimes anger.” Andy’s sorry about the man he’s become, but he’s sorry about the man he was denied. Sorry about the man who was buried when he was so young.
I’m mostly glad about the wonder of Wendell Berry.


Summary: Young Andy Catlett's life is forever changed the day his namesake Uncle Andrew is murdered, an event he spends a lifetime trying to understand.

Andy Catlett is nine years old on the summer day when his adored Uncle Andrew refused to take him on a job salvaging material from an old building. Otherwise it is a perfect day with a satisfying dinner with grandparents, meandering across farm fields, quenching his thirst at a cold spring, watching insects and a world alive, and swimming in a pond to cool off, even though it was forbidden. He arrives home that evening in 1944 to be told by his father that Uncle Andrew had been shot twice by the ill-tempered Carp Harmon. Shortly after he dies.

It is like a long swath of fabric being torn out of a favorite shirt for all of them, never to be repaired. He tells of being with his grandparents and father one night, all of them in tears as they think of what they've lost. And shortly after, grandfather dies. Andy's father no longer plays songs on their piano. We learn how close his disciplined, responsible father came to savage revenge. Something had been snatched out of their world that left it irreparably changed. As the title states, a world lost.

But who was the beloved uncle, brother, son, and why did Carp Harmon kill him? Andy spends the rest of his life trying to understand these things and this novel is his narrative of both discovery and lingering questions. Uncle Andrew was the strong, handsome ladies man who married into the town's elite, only to live in a loveless marriage with a hypochondriac wife and demanding mother-in-law. He struggled financially, drank too much, and was trying to put his life back together with his brother's help. This complicated man was the uncle Andy adored.

He interviews witnesses to the murder, reads news stories, and trial records. None of it fully makes sense and often seems contradictory. Even the accounts of whether Uncle Andrew had done anything to provoke the murder conflict. Letters in his father's effects, shed little more light. It was senseless, as all murder is senseless. He wonders sometimes if things would have been any different had he been with Uncle Andrew that day.

This is the narrative of any family who has suddenly lost someone by violent means. Life may go on but it can never be the same. We discover the complicated mystery of the one we have loved and lost, the shades of light and dark that comprise the portrait of a life, and the ambiguities that fail to resolve. We wrestle with making sense of the senseless--and fail. We carry our own private grief, guilt, perplexity, and trauma, hidden to the world but never far from mind.

Wendell Berry, in his measured way, unfolds this exploration of a world lost in the context of the Port William membership we've met in other novels. We have the familiar backdrop of the web of relations and the care of the family farms and the work that must be done that reminds us of the tension of darkness and life within which we live. Berry captures that tension in the narrator's concluding reflections:

"I imagine the dead waking, dazed, into a shadowless light in which they know themselves altogether for the first time. It is a light that is merciless until they can accept its mercy; by it they are at once condemned and redeemed. It is Hell until it is Heaven. Seeing themselves in that light, if they are willing, they see how far they have failed the only justice of loving one another; it punishes them by their own judgment. And yet, in suffering that light's awful clarity, in seeing themselves within it, they see its forgiveness and its beauty, and are consoled. In it they are loved completely, even as they have been, and so are changed into what they could not have been but what, if they could have imagined it, they would have wished to be.

"That light can come into this world only as love, and love can enter only by suffering. Not enough light has ever reached us here among the shadows, and yet I think it has never been entirely absent."


Love, love this book, as I love all of Berry’s. I’d like to have the complete set of Port William stories and reread them sometime.