Sunday, February 1, 2009

Where's the Joy, Hannah?

I'm sensing everyone is bursting to talk about the book now that they have finished or are nearly finished.

I know for certain that Tammy NEEDS to talk about it before she forgets her brilliant observations (many of which will make their appearance here over the next couple of days).

The particular conversation that I'd like to have today has already been started by Donna over at Quiet Life and by a number of you in the comment section of Moving at the Speed of Wendell (the post before the party.)

The observation many of you have pointed out is that Hannah seems to be lacking joy when she speaks of her grown children. I noticed this, too and I have a theory that I'd like to throw out for the purpose of discussion. I wondered if it was too early to talk in such broad terms about this book but I think we can handle it, don't you?

I'll just come out with it. (You have to be brave sometimes.)

I think Hannah's attitude toward the choices her grown children make is Wendell being critical of those choices. It's difficult for me to read it any other way. In Part One, Hannah is a real person to me that I can relate to, but by the end of Part Two she has become a mouthpiece, full of opinions and not afraid to spout them.

What do you think?

Part of the problem with Part Two for me is that she seems cold toward and critical of the paths her children have chosen. I have difficulty imagining myself reacting that way seeing my children carve a way for themselves in the world and being content. I think Margaret is a separate story but certainly her boys chose things they loved and they succeeded at them. It's as if Wendell is saying that the Branches made a better choice by choosing to stay, continuing to farm and carrying on the old ways.

It's as if the relationship she has with her children is dependent on their proximity to Port William, not on their blood line. I can understand the loss of their leaving but I can't understand the loss of relationship once they are gone. It would seem to me a better argument for a Port William way of life if the author portrayed its residents as capable of producing relationships that transcend a place.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this and I invite you to agree or disagree at will. There are no right answers here, right? Just good discussion.

I also think Hannah would root for the Cardinals today.

And that's the last opinion in this post.


Thank you all for your wonderful birthday wishes!

I am blessed beyond measure,


  1. You nailed it, Lynn, with this sentence:

    It would seem to me a better argument for a Port William way of life if the author portrayed its residents as capable of producing relationships that transcend a place.

    I dont think Hannah cares about the Super Bowl :\

  2. And copying my comment from a previous post because I think it applies here...

    I dont want to believe Hannah is sad or heartbroken because she's lived such a full life.

    From her upbringing one would think she would have a grip on the Biblical *leave and cleave* verse and all that entails.

  3. Hmmm. I, like Hannah, am rooting for the Cardinals and now that it's the 4th quarter and things aren't looking good, I'll turn to this discussion. Excellent observations and questions, Lynn!

    I think Hannah couldn't transcend place and pursue relationships with her sons once they moved away because she didn't (couldn't?) understand their world. She was so tied to Port William and her home and work on the farm that she had few opportunities to get away. I like the shopping trips to Louisville she describes with Mrs. Branch. That was about as far as her world could stretch. We know a lot of people like that in our area. Their whole lives have been lived here (maybe they've taken an exotic vacation or two) and they aren't really interested in anything beyond what is happening here. Hannah (Wendell?) seems to be like this. She never mentions traveling to visit her kids and grandkids. It is hard for us (the modern readers) to understand, but I don't doubt there are people like Hannah.

    Wendell does, indeed, make judgments about the choices Hannah's children have made and he isn't too subtle about choosing the Branch family's choices over the more modern ones. I think Hannah gives some clues for why she thinks the old ways are better, though. Her children haven't been able to form happy families (two children with divorces and one in a rather cold, childless marriage) and they seem disconnected. The grandchildren don't know how to play outside and aren't interested in anything except their electronic toys.

    Oh, the Cardinals are rallying so I'll quit for now.

  4. " I can understand the loss of their leaving but I can't understand the loss of relationship once they are gone."

    I don't think I hear Wendell's voice as much as you do, Lynn.
    But, that may be since I have some of the same struggles as 'Hannah'.

    I confess, I do find it hard to have a relationship with my boys with them far away. I find it difficult to converse with them on the phone. Even when they call, I find the conversation, difficult. I have to move the conversation along and there are weird pauses. I am distracted by poor connections and the fact that they are driving or talking with someone else in the room.

    Now. I think Hannah is a sad sack and I don't want to be like that.
    I don't want to be disappointed with the choices my children make....but I am.

    My oldest son was pretty much perfect when he was home.
    Since leaving home, he has become a very different person.
    I don't know him very well any more. He is hiding.

    Learning to love him and have a good relationship at this stage has been very strained.

    I see Hannah's point.

    But gosh, I hope as he matures and I adjust, I can move on and accept the way things are.

    You know...In acceptance lieth peace.


    Love beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Love never fails.


  5. Here's a link to a picture of my joyful Hannah.

  6. Wow. This is big stuff.

    First, Lynn, I only cried once - and it was in the brief chapter where Hannah forgave Ivy. I was SO incredibly moved by that little exchange.

    Secondly, I have a brother who is in his early 40's, newly married, left Wisconsin for CA after undergrad, and never looked back. It is very hard for us - his midwestern family - to understand his California man way of life, as his choices, life, career, and relationships are nothing like any of them were/are here at home. I have many family friends who have adult children who have moved away who have found ways to continue important adult relationships with one another. That just hasn't been our experience. I feel in many ways as though BB [big brother] has abdicated his place in our family, and therefore has relinquished any rights to an opinion about our aging parents and how they will be cared for in the future. But that's another conversation...

    On the other hand, my mom was no Hannah while we were growing up.. but she's very Hannah-esque now in her depression over her children's departure.

    I just have a hard time believing that this is the inevitable outcome.

    More later - my baby needs to eat. And his eating is interrupting my opinions. :)

  7. Well, I enjoyed all the comments, but my thoughts echo Lynn's: I hear Wendell's voice and feel his emotions regarding Hannah's grown children.

    As a mother of grown children and young-at-home children, I love having all my children at home whenever possible. I love big family meals together, and sitting together in the family room talking and playing games or whatever. But as much as Steve and I long for a family compound with everyone living near us, I don't think we'll get it.

    And I hope that we never come to value place or lifestyle, as Hannah seems to, over the children God has given us.

    When I married and moved 3000 miles away from my parents they kept in touch by calling me every Saturday. They did that for 24 years - until we moved to Alabama and into a house only 12 miles from them.

    I'm hopeful that someday some of our children might live near us, but if not then I will try to rejoice and be content with the life God has given them.

    With Hannah, I get no sense of faith, just a love for this life as it is on earth.

  8. I love your thoughts on this Lynn! And everyone's really. As a mom of 5 boys who I KNOW are never going to leave me or have lives of their own, I found Hannah's estrangement from her sons quite disturbing.

    Personally, I would've liked to have shared in some of the joyful memories she certainly would've had of her children. Each short chapter seemed like the pluck of a string... only offering a hope of something musical that would be qickly silenced.

    There was so much beauty and possibility in their little interconnected community, but it seemed that much more focus was placed on this concept of community than on the individual relationships. I think you are right Lynn about Wendell trying to teach us a lesson.

    I was getting rather annoyed and depressed by the end of Part Two. It felt quite fragmented and rarely flowed in the narrative form with which I'm more comfortable. But I finally gained a perspective that was rather profound for my analytical un-poetic mind. This was not so much a story as it was a patchwork quilt of Hannah's life. Bits and pieces of melancholy colors stitched together as representation of the life she lived.

    Maybe if she was more chipper, her kids would've come home with their families more often. Hmmm...

  9. Oh, I don't think Hannah would've understood football or why anybody would play. She would've brooded over the TV room as her family tried to watch the game and ruined it for everyone. However, she would've rooted for the Steelers because she would've thought they were hard working miners who valued their communities. :p

  10. tammy, that was my quote over on the other board -

    Maybe if there was a little more joy around the table, they'd have come home more often!!


    ps - was anyone else as off-put by the Okinawa tangent as I was? I found myself TANGIBLY bothered by such a brutal rabbit trail that was so different from the rest of the book.


  11. Steph, I was so put off by that chapter that I stopped reading it after two pages....

    I started making some notes and then I realized I could *skip it* That was a big deal for me who always.reads.every.single.word.

  12. I think what bothered me in part two is that we didn't get an up close sense of her life. Just skipping across the surface. Where in part one we had such a vivid view into her life - her grandmama, her courtship, Christmas, birth of her daughter...

    Maybe a little more focusing on the good and bad times would have made her later life seem more real to me. And more joyful.

    Though I loved the line where she says she and her friend had sewn together so much that they were "stitched together" or something like that.

  13. On a positive note, I will follow up what Wendy said about stitches.

    Mr. Berry paints good word pictures, especially when Hannah mentions the golden threads of love and gratitude embroidered in her life... even shining :) pg 51-52

  14. Steph & others, I find Wendell's views on war the most difficult to take of any of his opinions. He seems so pacifist-no-matter-what and that is so different from my own experience and beliefs. Also, as the daughter of a WWII vet who told lots of stories about the war, I have a hard time understanding Nathan's character that never talked about it.

    Part of what I think Wendell is expressing through Hannah's disappointment over her children moving away is the huge divide between life on the land before the war and life in the cities after. It is a much bigger divide than just geographic relocation across the country. It is, in many ways, rejection of the old ways. Hannah and Nathan feel that their lives were rejected as too little, too difficult, or too confined for their modern children. They feel in some ways that their children are ashamed of them. Hannah loved her life on that farm and she is trying to come to terms with her children's ambivalence (if not outright rejection) about the place and the lifestyle. The younger son who goes to get an advanced degree in agriculture exemplifies the attitude of modern farming toward the smaller, older family farming methods Wendell Berry still cherishes. We are certainly hearing his views on this as Hannah mourns over her children leaving home.

  15. I so agree with all the comments so far! I thought the Okinawa chapter was terribly hard to read. When he talks about the suffering and on and on and on, I got tired of it and I believe in Christ's suffering and we are to be examples but my that was preachy!

    I didn't like the way that Hannah treated Kelly and I didn't like that she lied to the hunter but I guess she had to get that out. She was in a bad mood for certain.

    I agree the first part of Hannah's life was so richly described and the lives of her children were just little sad snippets. You know she lived right up into the 2000's, why couldn't her son been allowed to show her how to use a computer and she could have conversed with her faraway family that way. Not to mention she could have typed her story out! Ha.

    I am glad that I have finished it now and I am pleased with the ending.

  16. Also, what Laura said "With Hannah, I get no sense of faith, just a love for this life as it is on earth." We know she was looking forward to Heaven but she did seem to have narrowed down her life on earth to Port William and none other could possibly be as good. She didn't seem to believe that her children could be happy anywhere else. And by gosh, they weren't! Maybe the power of life and death in the tongue was doing them harm. I don't understand people not actually communicating what they feel and speaking right out loud. Why not?

  17. Oh, oh, oh. Today, I read a blog post on my son's college magazine blog that speaks to Wendell's ideas about place. I posted about it at Maple Grove with links, but the direct link is here: