The two most memorable things I read in 2017 were text messages. One came in early February, and told me that my sister-in-law had cancer. I read it on the red line on my way home from work. The second came two weeks later, and told me that my dad had kidney disease. I read it when I was at lunch with coworkers, and pulled my phone out to see how long we’d been gone.
In the months since then, I’ve read far less than I usually do. I’ve done far less of everything, it seems. Fun things feel pointless, and intellectually engaging things are too hard, leaving me to fill my time with celebrity gossip, HGTV, and red wine.
I haven’t felt like myself, essentially, in nine months. I feel walled off from the people around me by my own preoccupation. As updates come in on the twin emergencies in our family, I’m unable to shake off a feeling of constant tension. I would feel guilty if I did.
The only book I loved this year was A Place on Earth by Wendell Berry. Although I’d been meaning to read his fiction for years, I started this book (according to my Goodreads activity) the day after my sister’s diagnosis. I had some idea that reading about a small farming community in Kentucky, written by the octogenarian poet-farmer-essayist-novelist Berry, would be comforting. I had no idea how deeply I’d identify with the character of a 60-year-old tobacco farmer.
All of Berry’s fiction—a smattering of novels, novellas, and short stories—take place in the same fictional town of Port William, Ky., which is based on Berry’s own hometown. It’s a small town, and each work focuses on a different family or generation or set of friends, so that reading them as a whole brings the entire interconnected community to life.
If there’s a main character in the books, or a character who comes closest to being Berry’s mouthpiece, it’s Mat Feltner. Mat comes from a long line of Port Williams farmers, and that line continues after him. He is hard-working, wise, and kind. A Place on Earth takes place in 1945, and Mat’s son, Virgil, is off fighting the war. Early in the book, Mat and his wife receive a letter that says Virgil is missing in action.
Mat, his wife, and their daughter-in-law enter that state of waiting and worrying that was instantly recognizable to me. It’s dread—when the worst case scenario looms over you, and seems likely, but you hold it at bay until absolutely necessary, and in the meantime you have to live your normal life. Midway through the book, Burley Coulter, one of the Feltners’ neighbors, writes a letter to his nephew Nathan, who is also fighting in the war. He talks about how badly the community feels for the Feltner family, how distant Mat has been, but how he doesn’t know how to act or help. People know how to support a grieving family, but not a family living in dread.
The Feltners were my closest companions in that time. Looking for bucolic escape, I had found fellow travelers through a long, foggy night. As I continue to read through Berry’s fiction, the Feltner family’s grief is present but not prevalent. They endured hardship and kept going. My family’s health concerns, while still ongoing, are not currently critical. But for the moment in time that they were, and A Place on Earth came to me, Mat Feltner will always be my favorite Port William character, and one of my favorite characters in all of literature. We went through something together.
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