In his novels and short stories, Wendell Berry writes about the people of Port William, Kentucky, a farming community that you will not find on any map. Fidelity is one of several volumes adding to the story of the Coulters, Feltners, Catletts, Rowanberrys, Penns, and other families who settle on the hills and in the valleys of the small rivers feeding into the Ohio River. These books take readers back to the nineteenth century and up through the twentieth, revealing how life in rural America has changed.
Fidelity starts with “Pray Without Ceasing,” a story in which the narrator receives an old newspaper clipping, which sparks his memory of his grandmother telling him about his grandfather, who was shot to death by a close friend. Many of the families are involved.
The embroidery on the book jacket refers to the second story, “A Jonquil for Mary Penn.” Not wanting to delay her husband who is going to help a neighbor, Mary tries to hide an illness. After he leaves for the day, alone and isolated, in a time before the party-line telephone, she finds her illness more serious than she would admit.
I read “Making It Home” on Memorial Day, which was very appropriate. Art Rowanberry returns from his service in World War II, having received a medical discharge. As he nears his home, hiking in because there was no bus, sleeping overnight in an abandoned barn, he remembers his experiences of combat.
In “Fidelity” Berry tells the story of the death of Burley Coulter, a character who appears in many of the Port William stories. His son Danny can not stand to see his father full of tubes and tied to monitors in the hospital and removes him in the night. The story ends with a scene that reminds me of a Miss Marple mystery, with family and friends gathered in a lawyer’s office to unravel the events for a young police detective.
The collection ends with “Are You All Right?” in which Andy Catlett worries about the elderly Rowanberry brothers, who are isolated by flooding. He and his friend Elton go out in the night to see if they can help.
The books of Wendell Berry do not have to be read in any order. I especially recommend the Hannah Coulter, a novel with many connections to this wonderful short story collection.
Berry, Wendell. Fidelity: Five Stories. New York: Pantheon Books, 1992. ISBN 0679416331