Berry tells the life story of a young woman, Hannah, who lived through most of the twentieth century and all the changes that occurred during that time in communities, nations (through war), agriculture, and families. He tells the story in first-person, and though he is a man, his account through the eyes of Hannah is perfectly believable. Berry has a gift as a writer, no two ways about it. He comes up with phrases and turns of speech that break your heart for the characters.
You can read straightforward reviews on Amazon to find out more about the contents, but here I want to reflect on two ideas that the book aroused in me: regaining (or refounding) a lost culture and the power of a novel to persuade in a way that non-fiction usually does not.
The Power of Fiction
Regarding fiction, I’ve read Berry’s non-fiction writings and am already convinced of his arguments. But this novel, the first fictional account I’ve read of his, has sunk his vision deeply into my heart.
Hannah experiences a hard life on her poor family’s subsistence farm growing up, but it is a good life, with her grandmother forming her in the domestic arts in the vacuum left by her mother’s death. She grows up and begins secretarial work in the nearby town when World War II hits and dramatically affects her life and the lives of every person in the Port William area. Already a message is communicated that, whether the war was just or not, it was a terrible, terrible thing. That’s something that all of us already know, on some level, but seeing how it hurts so many people in such a personal way in the town makes the lesson penetrate deeper.
Eventually she starts her own family, with her children coming of age from around 1950 to 1980, and we see the changes in our country’s culture leading her children to abandon the agrarian way of life. None of the children want to stay on the farm with their parents. They all go into the cities and become employees with varying levels of business success. They all start families of their own, suburban ones that only occasionally go back out to the farm. One child’s marriage ends up in divorce and Hannah’s grandchild falls into drugs. Another child becomes a high-powered CEO and he misses his father’s funeral because he was “too busy.”
We are shown that, amazingly, in one person’s lifetime, our country went from an agrarian culture to our modern urban, technological one. I can identify with Hannah’s children because they are my age. They are how I grew up: suburban family, public schools, divorced parents, city job, an employee. Through the story, I come even more clearly to realize how impoverished our current culture is, and that there was once a better way to live.
Refounding the Culture
The most heartbreaking thing about the story is that, by the end, when most of Hannah’s family and friends have died, when the farms around her have all been sold off to city people for their country retreats, we realize that there’s no hope for a recovery of the way of life Hannah knew. The agrarian life is gone. The culture built around community and place and people rooted in a place, knit together in their lives, is gone.
But can we rediscover this way of life?
That’s the question I asked myself after reading the book. Can we, in whatever tiny way, begin to refound, to rebuild, this culture? One in which people are rooted together to a place. Yes, like the old Amish, though without being isolationists.
It seems like our culture is still on its way down, meaning we have not yet reached the bottom, the logical end of our destructive way of life. And to get political for one moment, neither party has the understanding, the principles, or the virtue to reverse this trajectory. They both are continuing downward in different directions, though I will say that the Democrats’ direction will destroy things much more quickly and viciously. There is such a thing as the greatly lesser of two evils.
And because we are still heading downward, one family or even group of families or even thousands of families cannot hope to reverse the trend themselves. Rather they can hope to be a the lifeboats that stay afloat to carry civilization onward when the destruction is complete and people realize a new way needs to be tried. It is then that things can be refounded. We are in the lifeboat building business.
The lifeboat that we feel called to build starts with a homestead out in the country. Even while still an employee and very much in the system, I hope to give our family roots in a place, with an agrarian life, and see how God leads us.
What do you think of my prognosis? And what do you think a new agrarianism would look like, in our modern world? How can true communities form again where people are connected to one another in a deep way?