Wendell Berry often tells stories about Port William, Kentucky, allowing readers to richly experience a place as well as its people. In Hannah Coulter, the voice of the elderly narrator recounts the love she has for the land on which she and her second husband had farmed for decades. Hannah possesses a vibrant mind and humble heart, and her calm, reflective exploration of her life in this small out-of-the-way place brings to life the ways in which time and circumstances have not only challenged but enriched this woman.
Hannah tells her story simply. Although a country girl, owing to time and circumstances, Hannah could not imagine a life for herself beyond her father’s house. Thanks to a strong-willed grandmother, however, Hannah escapes the household dominated by her cold stepmother and goes to live in the nearby town of Hargrave. There her world expands, but not grandly: Hannah finds work and eventually marries her first husband, Virgil. But her happiness is short-lived: Virgil dies in World War II, leaving her to raise an infant daughter he had never seen.
Hannah’s is the story of loss and adaptation to change over time. She remarries and has two more children. In rural post-war small towns, many children left for brighter futures in cities far away. In a thread Berry often explores, Hannah’s rural community and farm are threatened by “progress”--the disappearance of the small family farm. However, Hannah never loses hope--something that bears fruit when her wayward grandson, Virgil, returns to the home place to learn to farm. Thus Hannah’s story ends on an affirming note: the land she so loved now will be looked after under the stewardship of her first husband’s grandson rather than fall prey to land speculators and subdivision builders.