Review: A Place On Earth by Wendell Berry

*In this guest post, David J. Ballenger reviews Wendell Berry’s novel A Place on Earth. David is an author and happens to be my brother (don’t hold that against him, he’s suffered enough for it).

A Place on Earth begins with a group of men playing cards in the empty back room of Jasper Lanthrop’s empty store. Jasper, like many of the town’s young men, is off fighting in World War II. The war plays in the background of the novel; news from the European and Pacific theaters trickle in by way of radio broadcasts and letters from the front lines, but the town is always listening and waiting for news. While they listen and wait, life proceeds but always in the shadow of the absence of sons, brothers, nephews, and husbands.

Berry does not give the reader a romanticized pastoral setting in which to escape and feel better. He tells the story of a place. In this place there is suffering. A child dies in a flood and a man takes his own life. There is drunkenness and sloth. There are also moments of levity and there is plenty of love, love for people and this place.

Over the past month, most of us have been forced to stay at home, and some of us have found a new appreciation for our place and others are dying to get away, to get back out into the world. There is a mix of both in Port William as well. While a character like Jarret Coulter keeps his nose to the grindstone and his mouth firmly shut, his brother Burley finds time to seek out the companionship of friends and writes letters to his nephew Nathan. At their best, the characters in A Place on Earth cope with their losses and the cloud of an international crisis through work. Good work. Work that brings about new life and orderliness in this place. Celebration and death will come, but in the meantime, a supper needs to be cooked, a grave needs to be dug, a head needs to be barbered, a field needs to be plowed, and a lamb needs to be birthed.

In one of the final chapters of the book, family and friends sit in their home with the body of Ernest Finley. While a group of men sit on the porch, neighbors begin flooding from their doors celebrating the end of the war. The contrast between the two groups is representative of the novel. In the same place, there is a time for mourning and a time for celebration, and sometimes those overlap. However, they are all interconnected. The best of them know that what is good for their neighbor is good for them. It is the international crisis that is abstract and difficult to fathom. The crisis is not what defines them; they are defined by their work and their shared lives, their love for the place and the people there.