Hannah Coulter is a book that can change a person. It’s fiction; but it’s not fictional. It takes place in Kentucky; but it has taken place most everywhere. It’s about ordinary human life; and for that reason it’s extraordinary.

At one point Hannah looks back on her life at home with her husband:

Here on this place, among its stories remembered and forgotten, Nathan and I made our love for each other. Here we raised our children… And here is where our love for them was made. Love in this world doesn’t come out of thin air. It is not something thought up. Like ourselves, it grows out of the ground. It has a body and a place.

Reading, we might feel as though somehow we recognize this, even if we’ve never seen anything quite like it. We might discover a desire for things we didn’t even know could exist or could be done.

Somehow here in this story is courtship and marriage, family and community, growth and decline, work and rest, suffering and joy, life and death, in a deeply—well how else to say it?—natural context. This isn’t nostalgia. It’s just human life through the eyes of a particularly keen observer. And you can feel that he’s seen it with his own eyes. One can’t make up such things.

Human life is always lived in the particular; there’s no such thing as human life simply ‘in principles.’ Universal principles only exist when incarnated, in real people in some real place. Any actual life in its particulars will thus be foreign, if not alien, to most other people. But at the same time, the more fully human the life, the more we all might discover in it principles to live by. The hardest trick will be to discern just how to do it in our own life, especially in circumstances that can put us at disadvantage.

Truly human life is always possible, though a conducive context can really help. Just what contexts are conducive and also within our reach, and how we can craft them today: here are issues that demand our careful consideration.

To read Hannah Coulter is to see the human drama unfold in its simplicity and magnificence in the Kentucky countryside just a few generations ago. Our life will of necessity look quite different. But just how different should it be, and how in certain wonderful ways might it be the same? This is ours to ponder, and to choose.

For more on Hannah Coulter, see Hannah Coulter Reading Group Resources.

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