Reading Nathan Coulter by Wendell Berry (born 1934) reminded me of reading A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean (1902-1990). Two brothers, flyfishing, and a father are to Maclean what two brothers, farming, and a father are to Berry. I wondered which book might have influenced the other, until I saw the publication dates. Nathan Coulterwas published in 1960. A River Runs Through It was published in 1976.
Nathan Coulter, Berry’s first novel, is a coming-of-age story of the title character. The story occurs in small-town and rural Kentucky from roughly 1929 to 1940. The Coulters are tobacco farmers, and Nathan’s family lives nearby his grandparents and Uncle Burley. The family is close-knit, until the death of Nathan’s mother sends the boys into the arms and the home of their grandparents. Their father is barely able to cope with his grief.
Nathan and his older brother Thomas are inseparable, until Thomas discovers girls. And then they become more like boys living in the same house. As the brother being “left behind,” Nathan feels the loss most keenly. But it is a tobacco harvest that amplifies the loss and makes it irrevocable, a harvest that becomes a competition between Nathan’s father and his sons and then something far more between his father and his older brother. And in a brief moment, Nathan will see everything change irrevocably.
Wendell Berry about the time he wrote "Nathan Coulter"
Nathan Coulter is a story of family, of family farming, and especially of place. The family is rooted in place (a common theme in Berry’s stories, novels, and poems). The disruption of place will bring the disruption of family.
Berry is a poet, novelist, essayist, environmentalist, and social critic. His fiction, both novels and stories, are centered in the area he calls Port William, Kentucky, on the Ohio River. He’s won a rather astounding number of awards, prizes, fellowships, and recognitions. He lives on a farm in Kentucky.
With Nathan Coulter, Berry has written a beautiful novel. It tells it story, but it also tells a broader story. If you’ve grown up in the South or even the Midwest, the Coulter family is not recognizable; it’s like the family you grew up in.