Poet, essayist, short-story writer, novelist Wendell Berry is a superb American craftsman. His latest short-story collection is a wonderful example of his gift.
Set in and around the village of Port William in rural northern Kentucky, these twenty stories depict the lives of the residents of the area, starting in 1864 with the tale of a young woman’s encounter with group of “alien riders,” soldiers of unidentifiable allegiance, gathering outside her home. The collection closes with the title story, ranging from 1938 to 2008, which recounts the forbidden courtship, elopement, happy marriage, and struggles of Elton and Mary Penn, winding up with Elton’s death and Mary’s resigned auction of their land, their home, and all their belongings.
This book, its world, is a microcosm. There are generations of families—the Feltners, the Coulters, the Catletts—and individuals who make up what Burley Coulter calls “the Port William Membership.” There are stories of young love, marriage, children, hard work, loss, and death. And there is Port William, with its farms and woodlands, rivers and creeks, village school and local churches, law office, barbershop, and bank—all supporting and supported by the membership. You end up feeling like you know these people—and you care deeply about them.
Berry tells his stories with great tenderness, with heartrending affection for his characters. His skill as a poet serves him in sketching each scene and creating each metaphor. He writes here often with a biblical cadence, giving his prose weight and musicality, but always stops short of being ponderous.
I had lots of problems with A Place in Time: It made me giggle or guffaw when I was reading somewhere quiet, it brought tears to my eyes at inconvenient moments, the writing was so exquisite that I found myself with nearly every page seeking someone to whom I could read a passage—I could have read the whole book aloud to share its beauty!—and it ended too quickly. I wanted more stories of these lovely people and this unique and lovely place in time.