Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A Place on Earth

A Place on Earth
320 pages
© 1983 Wendell Berry

"I ain't saying I don't believe there's a Heaven. I surely hope there is. That surely would pay off a lot of mortgages. But I do say it ain't easy to believe. And even while I hope for it, I've got to admit I'd rather go to Port William."  

Remember thou part but dust, and to dust thou shalt return. Between a great war and a terrible flood, A Place on Earth is a hauntingly sad look on the true cost of war to human communities, and a perfectly appropriate book to read on an occasion like Ash Wednesday. A novel of the Port William membership, in A Place on Earth Berry follows the experiences of several men as the war festers and life goes on around it.  Mat Feltner takes the lead, as his soul is tormented by the challenge of coping with his son Virgil's disappearance and presumed death on an island far from his people. He is not alone;  he has the companionship of his card-playing buddies, and one has experience the same loss as himself. Ultimately, however, the only way to address the pain is to live with it for a while, to let it sink in. A Place on Earth is more than any book in the series so far a reflection on death.

Although the war claims the sons of Port William in other books (Mat Feltner's son Virgil is the husband lost in Hannah Coulter), Death is a more active character here. As the war ends a great flood sweeps the area, taking with it young lives and sending more families into distress, and another character Jayber begins to be groomed as the village gravedigger. His working himself into the role, and constantly thinking on the life and death of the town, develop throughout the book.  Although the hope of the largely Christian west is that death is restored by life eternal in the Hereafter,  A Place on Earth's title hints to the conviction of the townsfolk, religious though they may be, that heavenly pie in an ethereal sky isn't up to taste. What matters most to them is the connection they have with each other, now, in the course of living their lives. Their sons and daughters are not just personalities to be around, they are people whose lives are depended on as the town goes on, day by day.  Even given the predominant theme of death and meaning, there's a little levity to be found here; the retiring gravedigger provides a lot of comic relief as he, in the full knowledge that he is aged and allowed to be eccentric and a little mean, lampoons the preacher who is trying to put him out to pasture before his time. Seeing the preacher struggle to dig a grave that promptly floods, he inquires: is this a burial at sea?   A Place on Earth, like Jayber Crow, is beautifully written yet sad, a story of making peace.

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