Review: "That Distant Land" by Wendell Berry
Seven of us met at the Rivers in December to discuss Wendell Berry’s collection of short stories, That Distant Land. Berry’s book is a compilation of 23 short stories, all taking place in or around a fictional, small, Kentucky river town called Port William. Throughout the book, the characters are interlinked from story to story by kinship, friendship, and/or membership in the community. The stories are set in time from the 1880s through the 1980s and reflect, in part, how time, major historical events, advances in technology and cultural changes affected the idyllic community––how it changed it and how, in many fundamental ways, it remained the same.
Berry is a conservationist, a farmer, a political activist, a writer and poet, and philosopher. Above all he is an articulate spokesman for living a simple life, close to the land and nature, eschewing consumerism, and living in and actively as a part of a close community of family, friends, and others who care for one another and for the community as a whole.
Our discussion focused on a number of points including our personal histories of living in a rural, agricultural, and communitarian environment. The farming and rural setting resonated with Larry, who spent part of his childhood living on a dairy farm, where, like in Berry’s stories, everybody had a job. Jack had a similar experience living in rural-ish Nebraska and helping with the various harvests––everybody had a job and gender roles were clearly defined with men doing the heavy harvesting work and women doing the cooking, house related chores and child care. Our communities were smaller then, more homogeneous, and cohesive as in Berry’s Port William. We noted that we may have comparable communities up here that reflect similar communitarian values of sharing, mutual support, friendship, and working together toward common goals. It’s not based on farming or making a living, but rather on our recreational and environmental interests. Irv noted too that there seem to be two communities in many small towns up north--the locals and the newbies. And their boundaries are often clear and impermeable.
Would this book and the communitarian values it reflects appeal to millennials? Or are the lessons in Berry’s work more likely to be embraced by older readers, those of an age where they have developed a perspective that values the homely virtues of friendship, extended family, contributing to a community, living in balance with nature and in simplicity? We didn’t resolve that question, but noted that in the heat of developing careers and raising young families, it may be harder to step back and appreciate such values. Mark noted that reading a value oriented book like this or Atlas Shrugged could be a much different experience for a 25-year-old than one of us retirees.
Everyone liked the writing a lot and felt that many of the stories were interesting, often touching, and sometimes profound. This was reflected in the scoring––everyone scored it a 5 for interest, and everyone was looking forward to reading more of Berry’s work. Readability scores averaged 4.7. Several thought it was one of the best reads of the year.