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Andy Catlett: Early Travels – by Wendell Berry

November 6, 2009

Andy CatlettWendell Berry is a prolific author of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry; a cultural and economic critic; and a farmer in Kentucky.  Themes in his work, and the elements that constitute ‘the good life’ for him, include: sustainable agriculture, healthy rural communities, a strong connection to place, the pleasures of good food, local economics, frugality, reverence, and the interconnectedness of life.

Many of his novels take place in and around the fictitious town of Port William, and the members of this community, who have intertwined family trees and deep connections to that place, are negotiating the slow but steady transformation of the traditional ways of life in rural Kentucky as modernization unfolds there.  This is the third book I’ve read in the Port William series now, after Jayber Crow and Hannah Coulter.   In all three of these books, the main characters tell their stories while reflecting back on their lives, infusing their thoughts and experiences from earlier times with insights they’ve gained over the years.  Some people might think that Berry is too nostalgic or sentimental about times gone by, but I like this style and how he articulates “the current of time” flowing from past through present and future, how “time, then, is told by love’s losses, and by the coming of love, and by love continuing in gratitude for what is lost.”

In this story, it is Christmas, 1943, and nine-year-old Andy Catlett travels alone for the first time to visit both sets of his grandparents in Port William: first to Grandpa and Grandma Catlett’s house, and then to Granny and Granddaddy Feltner’s.  Nothing really dramatic happens; it’s a simple story about the love a boy has for his grandparents, the love they have for him, and how he understands their lives and their love now that he is an old man himself.  But I think that’s why I liked it.  It made me think about my own memories of spending time at the homes of my grandparents.

Andy remembers that turning into the gate of his grandparents’ place “was not, for me, merely the entrance into a place.  I was also entering my sense, almost my memory of my father’s childhood”, and also reflects that the house of his other grandparents had the “habit of hospitality”, that it was the most welcoming house he knew as a child.  For me also, going to my grandparents houses was so much more than ‘entering a place’ – their homes were filled with warmth, safety, and a great love.  I’ll never forget the feeling of grateful anticipation that always bubbled up upon turning into the shaded ‘circle’ driveway of Grandpa and Grandpa Streicher’s place, Grandpa never waiting inside but coming out the garage door to greet us with a huge smile . . . Or upon running up the steps from the landing at Grandpa and Grandma Erb’s house into the kitchen, Grandma proclaiming “well, look who’s here!” while starting to put out a “bite to eat.”

Lots of details about Andy’s visit resonate with me.  Being ‘fussed over’ by Grandma upon his arrival, climbing on Grandpa’s lap to look at a book together.   Supper that is “a sort of indoor picnic of cold leftovers and sandwich makings” – I’m tasting summer sausage, cheese, bread, pickled beans and baby corn right now!  Andy also remembers that “of all the things I loved in that house, I loved that clock maybe the most, for the sound of it [chiming] signaled the presence of everything else . . . That tune, when I ring it over in my mind now, calls back into presence the house as it was, all its rooms and furnishings, its sounds and smells” (125).  True for me too.  The clock at my grandparents, as well as many other objects I can still easily picture, bring to my mind the sounds, smells, and all of the other details of their homes, their routines, their lives as I knew them.

Andy Catlett is a nice, short, ‘homey’ and reflective read.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Debbie Drumm permalink
    December 4, 2009 2:51 am

    I found this story to be a very enjoyable read. It is the ” infusing their thoughts and experiences from earlier times with insights they have gained over the years” (nicely said Anita) that gives this story a whole new dimension. It is very nostalgic with lots of lessons to be learned plus it allows you to appreciate your own history as simple as that may be.

  2. Anita permalink
    December 4, 2009 3:50 pm

    I’m glad you liked the book! And thanks for your comment. I agree – Berry allows you to appreciate your own history and heritage through his characters and their thoughts.


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