The folks in How It Went, whom Wendell Berry writes about so beautifully, may remind readers of hobbits. They are neither small nor hairy footed, but they are kind and hardworking, and their Shire, the land around Port William, Kentucky, is part of them and they are part of the land. They have names like Jayber Crow, Fatty Moneyworth and Art and Mart Rowanberry. There’s even a couple of ne’er-do-wells called Dingus and Les, but they’re more out of a Paul Henning sitcom than J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendarium.
Berry’s book is divided into 13 lovingly written chapters. Some are short stories that have previously appeared in such publications as The Sewanee Review, while others are more like vignettes. Together, they create a tale that gently unwinds and doubles back on itself, not so much like a river but more like a flowering vine.
The protagonist and sometimes narrator is Andy Catlett. Though we learn that he’s looking back on a long life, the book begins on the day World War II ends, when he has just turned 11. Over the course of the book, we see him as a teenager, then an old man, then a boy again and then a young man.
Berry’s prose—in How It Went and just about everything else he’s written over his long career—is imbued with compassion. People have their dark sides. Men drink too much or harbor long resentments. Some people, like Andy’s grandma, may be unhappy, but discord is never dwelled upon. Even the loss of Andy’s hand in a harvesting machine is handled with Berry’s customary sensitivity: Another writer might’ve cast this incident as gruesome, but Berry focuses less on the accident than on how it affects Andy’s family and his self-image, which is bound up in his ability to work.
For the folks in Port William, work is everything, whether it’s making hay, handling a team of mules or building a barbed wire fence. Work is not only noble and necessary but also beautiful. Berry shares Tolkien’s disdain for industries that despoil the earth. In a hilarious scene, somebody dares to drive a motorized tractor through Andy’s grandfather’s property, and the old man nearly attacks it with his cane.
A book full of such gentleness, wisdom and humility seems preposterous in this day and age. It’s also something of a miracle. We are lucky, in such times, to still have a writer like Wendell Berry.