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A Place on Earth by Wendell Berry

December 30, 2017


I have read several of Wendell Berry’s books of essays. He’s an agrarian philosopher, a thoughtful elderly sage who believes we all have a duty to the land, animals and our communities. His writing is as beautiful as it is thoughtful. I’d never thought to read any of his fiction, though, until I came across his remarkable short story “Stand By Me” in a 2010 collection of Pen/O. Henry Prize stories.

All of Wendell Berry’s fiction takes place in a fictional rural town called Port William, Kentucky. For the past fifty years, Berry has developed Port William and its citizens over the course of eight novels, forty-two short stories and seventeen poems. The stories span from 1888 to 2008, and A Place on Earth takes place in the middle of that timeline, during World War II. Port William is feeling the pull of the war. As we meet the characters—the barber, a couple of share-croppers, the gravedigger, the preacher—news from overseas comes in and out. But mostly we feel it with the Feltners, whose boy Virgil is off fighting.

This is a slow, pensive story. It is oftentimes somber, sometimes funny, but has the rhythm of ordinary life. It took me several months on and off to get through it, but I returned to Port William at times when I wanted to slow down and check in on the characters. I wouldn’t say they were like old friends, because I think they’d take issue with a stranger like me just nosing into their world. But stopping in to see them tend to the fields, deal with the passage of time and the joys and tragedies of life brought a certain balance to my mind.

Berry is one of America’s treasures. He is an activist for the land. He is a luddite who eschews tractors for horse-drawn plows, writing long-hand for computers. He is 83, and still turning out writings (his The Art of Loading Brush: New Agrarian Essays was just published in October of 2017). I feel thankful to have stumbled into this trove with so much more to explore of Port William and its people.

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