A Brief Review of
Reviewed by Chris Smith.
Wendell Berry’s stories have always had the feel of being told by a storyteller in the ancient oral tradition of storytelling. Berry has crafted, in Port William, Kentucky, a believable world in which characters share life and death together. And now, in ChristianAudio’s new audiobook release of Berry’s That Distant Land, narrator Michael Kramer tells Berry’s stories with a fabulous Kentucky drawl that makes one feel as if he is a visitor hearing the local storyteller recounting events in his own town. That Distant Land is a complex work, a compilation of three of Berry’s earlier volumes of Port William short stories (The Wild Birds, Fidelity and Watch With Me), the stories of which are rearranged into the chronological order of Port William and interspersed with four additional stories that had not previously appeared in Berry’s short story collections. The tales here, although written as discrete short stories, when taken together in the order of That Distant Land, have the effect of a novel that sweepingly covers over a century of Port William’s history. For readers who want to enter into the world of Berry’s Port William, That Distant Land is a wonderful place to begin as it provides a context in which the other Port William novels can be understood, and for those who are not in a hurry and want immerse themselves in the rich experience of oral storytelling, ChristianAudio’s recording of That Distant Land is ideal. Although the characters are imaginations of Berry’s sympathetic mind (see the above review of Imagination in Place), this is a compelling portrait of his agrarian Kentucky, a real place that has given form and meaning to Berry’s own life. One can hear a hint of autobiography, as Andy Catlett recalls in the story that lends its title to the book:
I had lived away, working in the city, for several years, and had returned home only that spring. I was thirty years old, I had a wife and children, and my return had given a sudden sharp clarity to my understanding of my home country. Every fold of the land, every blade of grass and leaf of it gave me joy, for I saw how my own place in it had been prepared, along with its failures and its losses. Though I knew that I had returned to difficulties… I was joyful.
This joy of finding fulfillment in a place is an important message for churches as we seek to be faithful to the redemptive mission of God in an age marked by transience. There is much that we can learn from Berry’s imagination, deeply rooted in place, and its outworking in the world of Port William, Kentucky. That Distant Land, and particularly Michael Kramer’s audio rendering of it, serves as a wonderful introduction to this poignant imagination.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com