”Grandpa had owned his land and worked on it and taken his pride from it for so long that we knew him, and he knew himself, in the same way that we knew the spring. His life couldn’t be divided from the days he’d spent at work in his fields. Daddy had told us we didn’t know what the country would look like without him at work in the middle of it; and that was as true of Grandpa as it was of Daddy. We wouldn’t recognize the country when he was dead."
There is this moment in time, with proper longevity, when several generations might find themselves working a tobacco field together. The Coulter’s are one such family. One generation imprinting on the next generation, leaving traces of their work ethic and view of the world in those that follow them. My father, age fourteen, in the early 1950s went to see what was taking his father so long to feed the horses and found his lifeless body on the ground, tongue extended, looking like a grotesque version of the man that had dominated his life since he was first old enough to follow him out to the fields. At a tender age my father became the head of the family and sole support for his mother and two sisters. Our generation overlap was interrupted. According to my father my brother and I were fortunate to miss our grandfather. He was a hard man, more intent on finding a reason to administer a cuff than a reason to distribute praise. He might have been like Grandpa Coulter, if he had lived long enough to have white hair.”He always hurried, even across a room, setting his feet down hard. You could never imagine him turning around and going the other way. When he walked through the house he made the dishes rattle in the kitchen cabinet, and you half expected to find his tracks sunk into the floor. He was tall and learn, his face crossed with wrinkles. His hair was white and it hung in his eyes most of the time when he wasn’t wearing a hat, because he didn’t use a comb for anything but to scratch his head. His nose crooked like a hawk’s and his eyes were pale and blue.”Grandmother Leota (Chester) Keeten and Grandfather Dean Leo Keeten shortly after they are married.
Grandpa Coulter worked hard his whole life and Nathan’s Daddy is a chip off the old block. This is a book about the family, but it is really about the shaping force of the Grandfather on generations of Coulter men. His son Burley, Uncle to Nathan, explains about his father.But I tell you, there’s no give in him. And no quit. You’ve got to admire that. He’s been a wheel horse in his time. He’s worked liked the world was on fire and nobody but him to put it out. It’s a shame to see him getting old.”
This isn’t discussed in the novel, but it isn’t hard to puzzle out that Burley gave up on being the perfect son. His brother fit that role so well, and a life of competing with his father and his grandfather was not appealing to him. He suffered under their disapproving gaze, but periodically he relieves that pressure by going on a drunk, or going fishing, or going hunting. All things the rest of his family has no time to mess with. ”Grandpa thought Uncle Burley was a disgrace because he’d rather hunt or fish than work. Grandma didn’t mind that so much, but she was always grieving because he was so sinful. He never was very sorry for his sins, and that got her worse than anything. But he hardly ever paid attention to their haggling. When it got more than Burley could stand, he’d leave and spend a few days in his camp house at the river.”Kentucky Tobacco Field
Daddy relishes the competition he feels with his sons in the fields, often taunting them to beat him to the end of the row. He ain’t the boss, he’s the boss’s son, but he’s going to be boss when the boss is done.
As Grandpa is reaching the twilight of his ability to compete in the field, Daddy is reveling in the zenith of his strength. The boys haven’t logged enough time in the fields to develop the muscle memory to compete, but it seems that Tom might be the best candidate to be the next force of nature in the family. The brothers discussed the ramifications of actually surpassing their father. ”And Brother and I had thought about it and talked about it between ourselves. In a way passing him would be the finest thing we could do, and the thing we could be proudest of. But in another way it would be bad, because it would kill him to have to get out of the way for anybody. We’d told each other that we might never do it, even when we were able, because of that. And both of us knew that if the time ever came it would be a hard thing to do, and a risky one. Once we’d passed him we could never be behind again. We’d have to stay in front, and it was a lonely and troublesome place.”
If that day happened they would have to be prepared to take over the farm and neither boy is prepared for that responsibility.
Berry has been compared to William Faulkner, but he is certainly more accessible. He builds his stories around a regional location in Kentucky much as Faulkner does around Oxford, Mississippi. This is the first novel in the Port William, Kentucky series. It is not his strongest book; in fact, I noticed other reviewers expressing their disappointment after reading his much more mature work Hannah Coulter
. Hannah becomes Nathan’s wife and does not appear in this novel. Despite the fact that it is his first novel I found his descriptions up to the level that I have come to expect from Wendell Berry. Daddy’s barn burns down and Berry describes the crowd.A crowd had gathered at the yard fence. The red light flickered and waved on their faces, and shone on the roofs of the automobiles behind them. Their faces looked calm and strange turned up into the light of the fire, like the faces of people around a lion’s cage, separate from it, only seeing.”Wendell Berry, poet and novelist.
Reading this book I certainly felt a tug for a life that is now lost. Not only the life of my grandfather, but also the life on the farm where I had ample opportunity to work muscles, do a job, and feel that satisfaction in seeing the completion of a task. My job now is just one on going assembly line of paperwork and phone calls, rarely do things feel completed. I went to college so I could sit at a desk, and make decisions. I fix problems, and hire people to do the "real" work. I’m suited to it, but there are days when I feel the need to pick up a bale of alfalfa and fling it into a feed bunk or jostle around on a tractor turning the earth, revealing black soil, and feeling the surge of a diesel engine under my feet.
If my Grandfather had lived would I be a better person, probably not. With his heavy hand on the wheel of the family fortune I might have felt like I needed to be a farmer. Books would have been knocked from my hands and replaced with a pitchfork. I might have been trapped on the farm or I might have fled the farm too early, unprepared and doomed for failure, in an attempt to break away from his tyrannical reign. This is all idle speculation of course. He may have mellowed as he got older. My father is a kind man and probably would not be the man I respect so much today if his father had lived. You see...I get to respect him without fearing him. I have to feel that my kids benefit from not having my grandfather’s imprint on me. A book that gave me much to ponder