Berry has a wonderful way of bringing the reader into the fictional community of Port William. With a love for the land and the intricate web of relationships comprising a “membership” of people, Berry takes us into the lives of multiple generations, from a teenage Wheeler Catlett when he is grappling with his mother’s love for her alcoholic baby brother Uncle Peach to an elderly Wheeler getting lost driving, though never admitting it, for “Wheeler assumed that being in motion was the same as being found. If he kept going, he would eventually see something he recognized” (p. 435). Also, we meet Burley Coulter who regretted never marrying the “love of his life” Kate Helen Branch (p. 378), but, after Kate's death, always cared for their son Danny Branch and his family. In fact, Danny and Burley held so much in common with their love for the land, hunting, gathering berries, being men “of the woods and streams," near the end of Burley’s life, Danny with a love for his dad, someone in the early years he called “Uncle Burley,” “sneaks” Burley out of the hospital and brings him to a place by the “old barnhouse” that Burley loved so much, “… the barn had been used for many years only by groundhogs and other wild creatures and by Burley and Danny, who had sheltered there many a raining day or night” (p. 385). Danny buries Burley, “A heavy pressure of finality swelled in his heart and throat as if he might have wept aloud, but as he walked he made no sound. He stepped into the grave and laid the body down” (p. 413). We meet Andy Catlett’s grandfather Mat Feltner who, along with his mother, as a young man, found a way to forgive Thad Coulter who had killed Mat’s father Ben in a moment of rage. Andy writes, “I am blood kin to both sides of that moment when Ben Feltner turned to face Thad Coulter in the road and Thad pulled the trigger. The two families, sundered in the ruin of a friendship, were united again first in new friendship and then in marriage. My grandfather made a peace here that has joined many who would otherwise have been divided. I am the child of his forgiveness” (p. 75). Also we walk with barely-a-teenager Elton Penn who hates his step-father but is welcomed in by Tol and Minnie Proudfoot. As Elton grows, he marries Mary (against her family’s wishes) and works hard as a hired hand on the land of Jack Beechum. Though leaving a vague will, it had always been Jack Beechum’s wish that Elton receive the land at ½ its value, at $200/acre. However the daughter of Jack Beechum, Clara, and her husband Gladston have more interest in profitability than their father’s wishes, so put up the land for sale. At Wheeler Catlett’s prodding, Elton keeps bidding on the land, finally winning it at $300/acre. While Elton has taken on more than he can afford and hates the thought of seeking help from others, Wheeler says to him, “Your debt to Jack Beechum is a debt, and it’s not payable- not to him, anyhow…. This is only human friendship…. It’s not accountable, because we’re dealing in goods and services that we didn’t make, that can’t exist at all except as gifts…. you’re friends and neighbors, you work together, and so there’s lot’s of giving and taking without a price- some that you don’t remember, some that you never knew about. You don’t send a bill. You don’t, if you can help it, keep an account” (pp. 287-88). Many years later, Elton and Mary, with the help of friends, have worked hard to pay off the note.
What more can we say about these characters of Berry's? We could go on about the wonderful characters of brothers Mart and Art Rowanberry, … the twinkle in their father Early’s eyes when Art returns from the war or the strength of Nancy Beechum who, with her son Mat, chose to forgive her husband’s murderer; the supportiveness of Nathan and Hannah Coulter when their Uncle Burley decides to give his land to Danny and Lyda, instead of to them.
Berry certainly has a way of “drawing you in” and bringing you into the lives of these dear people as they make their way through the years. The heart awakens to insights and reflections about the human experience that are poignant and penetrating, moving, profound and also ordinary, … ordinary in the sense that the experience of grappling with sadness and hardship is common to us all. I began the book hardly having read much of Berry. I leave it deeply moved and a huge Berry fan. Were I to try and summarize the major themes of Berry's book, they would come down to these: a) friendship; b) land; c) community; and d) the virtues of time-tested ways. Perhaps the reflections near the end of the book summarizes it well:
"Danny Branch was one of Wheeler Catlett’s last comforts, for Danny embodied much of the old integrity of country life that Wheeler had loved and stood for…. In a time when farmers had believed that they had to take their needs to market or they could not prosper, Lyda and Danny ate what they grew or what came, free for the effort, from the river and woods. They drank from their well and milk from their cow, and in winter sat warm beside a stove in which their own wood burned. Because Danny still worked mules, they grew much of their own fuel for farm work. They fertilized their fields mostly with manure from the animals. And so of course they prospered. And so in the last light of Wheeler’s day and time he and Danny had one another’s company, and that was prosperity too, in its way” (p. 433).