This novel portrays a countercultural way of life that never loses its appeal when contrasted with the world’s alternatives. Nathan Coulter, after witnessing the atrocities of World War II, returns home to Port William, Kentucky, a small farming community where he vows to earn his livelihood, raise a family, and do the work he loves. He compares the tragic destruction and wanton killing of war to the abiding love of family and neighbor in a small-scale farming life committed to the preservation of civilized traditions, the bonds of extended families united in a common history, and the culture of a simple domestic life as opposed to the accumulation of wealth and social mobility: “And this place, more than all the places he had seen in his absence, was what he wanted. It was what he had learned to want in the midst of killing and dying, terror, cruelty, hate, hunger, thirst, and fire.” Hannah, the woman Nathan marries, also shares his ideals and values. Hannah observes that just as Nathan was located “where he wanted to be,” she too considers herself a member of Port William for life. The families in Port William have no aspirations of financial prosperity, affluent lives of sophistication and travel, or worldly honors: “Members of Port William aren’t trying to ‘get someplace.’ They think they are someplace.” The story affirms the home as the center of civilization.
Committed to their vows of indissoluble marriage and a home of stability and permanence, Hannah and Nathan resolve to establish a place of hospitality and charity in the world and to create in their hearts “a kind of life that is the opposite of war.” Purchasing a neglected old farm in need of many repairs that resembles “the house of a lonely old widow after her funeral,” the Coulters rely on each other’s mutual love to build their humble lives into a loving family and the culture of a home: “When a man and woman give themselves to each other, they have a light between them that nobody but them can see.” Nathan and Hannah do not mind the hard work and long days “as long as we could be together.” They do not view their simple abode as a first home to be outgrown in later years when they can afford a more commodious, elegant place. The Coulters abandon the idea that “there is a better place somewhere else.”
They compare their home to putting their feet into familiar, comfortable shoes. As the couple looks back over the years they have invested in their home, farm, and family, they see abundance, fruitfulness, and a rich harvest of human happiness. Hannah reflects, “Love in this world doesn’t come out of thin air. It is not something thought up. Like ourselves, it grows out of the ground. It has a body and a place.” The Coulters marvel at the oneness of their love and relish the fondest memories: “And I remember especially how much we belonged to each other then, how complete we seemed with our fire and our meal, what a unit we were, and the pleasure of it.” All this fulfillment and contentment they feel take time, effort, dedication, and an investment of their lives in the values they cherish, preserve, and wish to perpetuate. Nathan and Hannah with other farming families in Port William participated in a common life they called “the membership,” a bond of friendship and loyalty among families bound by affection a sense of solidarity. Farmers exchanged work and never accepted wages for labor given or received: “There was no bookkeeping, no accounting, no settling up. What you owed was considered paid when you had done what needed doing.” This culture of the home, the love of place and land, and the long, deep friendships that united the community of Port William instilled in Hannah and Nathan a great sense of life’s blessings and the goodness of the Lord.
As they enter middle and old age, they discover that the traditions and heritage they love do not easily continue into the next generation. Their children do not wish to continue the story of their parents, belong to the “membership,” or earn their livelihoods on the land. Unlike their parents who gratefully accepted their lot as a valuable legacy, the new generation feels the urge of career, wealth, and social mobility. While Hannah learned to find contentment in her simple life and modest standard of living, her children have ambitions that divert them from the culture of the home and place bequeathed to them. They do not take comfort in Hannah’s wisdom: “What would it have been to have had a different life with a different man? You will never know. That makes the world forever a mystery, and you will have to be content for it to be that way.” Instead the Coulter children imagine their futures as a search for a better place and a more prestigious career. Restless, they decide to “move on” and to “move up” with the benefit of higher education to find a better life and a newer place. The Coulter children, who do not quite grasp Hannah’s wisdom when she says “The chance you had is the life you’ve got,” begin to inhabit a different world and culture than the one they inherited.
Their daughter Margaret is not coming come. Their two sons will not continue their father’s life of farming. Their son Mattie studies electric engineering and communications technology and moves to the West Coast. Hannah feels forgotten (“we were left behind”) and unimportant because he calls only occasionally and rarely visits. Hannah feels more and more like a stranger to her son and find finds fewer topics of conversation to share with him. Her grandchildren—playing video games and watching television—show no interest in any aspect of the farm and feel no excitement about seeing a new calf, fishing in the pond, or discovering a hawk’s nest: “They don’t know the things that I and their daddy have known since before we knew anything.” Even though their son Caleb once expressed a desire to follow in his father’s footsteps, study agriculture in college, and then return home, his life at the university engages him in research projects and makes him reconsider his future, especially when he hears compliments like “Caleb, you’re too bright to be a farmer” and “Caleb, there’s no future for you in farming.” Finally Caleb announces his plans after graduation. He will not return home to the farm because “I’ve been offered a scholarship to a graduate school.” Heartbroken, Hannah and Nathan lament, “And so they were gone, all three. And so they still are gone.”
From Hannah and Nathan’s perspective, what Caleb gains in his new career of professor does not compensate for his loss. Nathan and the men who belonged to the “membership” never saw themselves as “employees” under a “boss.” They relished their life of independence and self-reliance: “Freedom, to him, was being free of being bossed and of being a boss.” Instead of joining the membership of farmers who exchange work, Caleb is belonging to “the world of organization,” a situation that is “a life of beginnings without memories” and “a life that ends without being remembered.” Hannah and Nathan foresee the future of their children as employees reaching retirement age and being “cast out of place and out of mind like worn-out replaceable parts, to be alone at the last maybe and soon forgotten.” The Coulters’ son-in-law Marcus also disappoints them and their daughter Margaret with his decision to divorce his wife for the sake of “fulfillment” and freedom. Unlike Hannah and Nathan he is not serious about his vows, commitments, and responsibilities that demand a lifetime of fidelity. So Hannah grieves over a beautiful way of life she and Nathan lived that they cannot transmit to the next generation—a way of life she sees dying except for a few exceptions like Danny and Lyda.
On the other hand, Danny and Lyda Branch never felt unqualified or uneducated because they never received college degrees because of “the education they got outside of school”—how to manage a household, raise crops and vegetables, care for animals and livestock, tame horses and mules, hunt and fish, and know the arts of beekeeping, cooking, and preserving. Unseduced by the promises of higher education and the American Dream of rags to riches, Danny and Lyda lived “a sort of futureless life” without anxieties about the future: “They aren’t going any place, they aren’t getting ready to become anything but what they are, and so their lives are not fretful and hankering.” The Branches never felt guilty about not being able to provide college educations for their children. The people of Port William in Hannah’s generation never suffered this modern malaise, the by-product of “the big idea of education” which always promises “the idea of a better place. The Coulters lament the fact that the generation of their children will have no memories of the good old times to relive and relish as they recollect a lifetime of experience.
Nevertheless, because Nathan and Hannah lived in tune with Mother Nature’s wisdom and God’s laws, the wisdom they gained does not just fade or die because of the inevitable changes in society or technology or the latest temptations of the world. Although wars, suffering, and injustices always mark the human condition, something permanent and eternal lingers to draw the heart and soul to the innermost goodness that dwells at the center of reality. Hannah’s grandson Virgie, a young man without purpose, direction, and meaning to his life, returns to Port William with a determination to recapture a lost way of life inspired by the example of his grandparents: “I want to be here. It’s the only thing I really want to do. I found that out.” It all makes perfect sense to Hannah: “When you have gone too far, as I think he did, the only mending is to go home.” Modernity has gone too too far in exaggerating career over family, in glorifying freedom at too great a cost, in glamorizing education at the expense of living and true happiness, and in clamoring for self-fulfillment without recognizing all the blessings and graces of marriage and home.