Berry’s first novel, Nathan Coulter, is a spare, lean Bildungsroman that traces the development of the young protagonist, Nathan, as he grows from childhood to adulthood in a Kentucky farming family. Narrated by Nathan in the first-person voice, the novel recounts the working lives of the Coulters, who raise tobacco on a hill farm outside Port William. The action is set in the early part of the twentieth century, when the farm work was done by hand and with mules. Each person’s value was known by his labor. Nathan and his older brother, Tom, are slowly initiated into this work of farming. The novel re-creates the mythos of a pre-World War II farming community.
Nathan Coulter is the story of a male-dominated family, of a father who drives himself and his sons too hard in a continual struggle to force his farm to yield. Jarrat Coulter is competitive and driven, as was his father, and he tries to instill in his sons the same stern discipline of work. Unfortunately for him (and for them), there is no joy in his labor or his land, nor any real nurturing for his sons or his farm.
Jarrat unconsciously blames his sons for their mother’s death. He leaves them in the care of their grandparents and withdraws into sullen resentment. This resentment of his children culminates in a terrible fight with his older son, Tom, during the tobacco harvest, after he has driven his help beyond endurance. Beaten and humiliated, Tom leaves home, and Nathan is left in the care of his...
(The entire section is 620 words.)