"How it Went" | Reviewed by William Winkler
Ernest Hemingway had Nick Adams. Wendell Berry has Andy Catlett. Both are fictional characters with autobiographical roots in their authors’ lives.
Kentucky native Berry is a poet, novelist, essayist, environmental activist and farmer. For more than 50 years he has lived and worked on a small farmstead in Henry County, Kentucky, where his family has lived for six generations. Berry’s farm faces the Kentucky River near the tiny community of Port Royal, the basis for the fictional town of Port William where much of Berry’s writing is based.
“How It Went” comprises 13 short stories, all but one of which have appeared in literary journals. Some are written in first person, some in third, but all trace the life of Andy Catlett. The stories trace Andy’s life from the day preteen Andy celebrates VJ Day in 1945 to his octogenarian reflections as he contemplates the end of his days.
In the ensuing years we meet, and get to know intimately, Andy’s family, both immediate and extended, such as his grandfather Marce who confronted a neighbor for driving a tractor, saying, “I don’t want that thing on my place…It’s got no business here! It don’t belong here!” We learn of the deep relationship between Andy and his grandfather’s Black field hand, Dick Watson, whose work Andy describes as beautiful. “Dick was not hurrying,” Andy remembers, “but was working about exactly as fast as the work needed to be done in order to be done well.”
These, and the multitude of others Andy contemplates as he anticipates the end of his days, are so skillfully drawn we wish we could have known them.
Wendell Berry’s work is characterized by his love of the land, his respect for those who hear its voice and respond, and by a resistance to change for its own sake. Reading these stories, with their insightful, frequently wistful view of the past, one might find it difficult to envision their author as a protestor willing to pay the price for his dissent. In 2009 at a protest against a program he felt would overburden small farmers, he wrote, “I'm 75 years old. I've about completed my responsibilities to my family. I'll lose very little in going to jail in opposition to your program—and I'll have to do it.”
“How It Went” is a piece of prose that often reads like poetry, not surprising since much of Berry’s work is poetry. The reader will come away with an appreciation of the land and people so important to its author. Perhaps more important, the reader will develop a deeper sense of reverence for life that runs through all the author’s work.