I’d recommend this book to anyone who wants to better understand the values and politics of rural America through literature. Berry does a great job at representing a culture and its values through story.

Stories I and IV are longer, the others are shorter.

I. Pray Without Ceasing

One of the longer ones and the most complicated in narrative structure. But its complexity pays off in the last couple pages. It’s interesting to study for its technique.

A man visits his grandparents and finally hears the story of how his great-grandfather was murdered by his best friend. The grandmother tells the story but we read it as a long flashback. (So long that Berry has to remind us partway through that it is a flashback by interrupting it with dialogue between the grandmother and the grandson.) With help from important figures in his small community, the grandfather overcomes his initial rage and urge for revenge. His restraint prevents the incident from destroying the relationship between the two families. A generation later, offspring of the two families end up marrying and creating a new family which is descended from both murderer and victim. Including our protagonist. We learn this at the very end, which makes for a second, unexpected climax and which reveals Berry’s purpose for framing one story within the other.

II. A Jonquil for Mary Penn

One of my favorites. Simple, short, and worth more than its length. It is a great example of how to imbue meaning into a story so that it doesn’t need to be interpretted rationally, but is instead felt.

Mary Penn is sick and wallowing. At first, we think her feelings are true: she is alone and she lacks love and care. But slowly we realize her small community is a good one, and we wonder what exactly is the cause of her despair. In the end, we, along with Mary, are reassured that her husband and her friends care for her deeply and attentively.

We feel her sadness and loneliness in the darkness of the early morning and in the coldness of the wind, and then we feel her joy when we she reawakens in the warmth of her bed to a sun-filled room and her dear friend knitting in the rocking chair.

III Making It Home

Like A Jonquil for Mary Penn, this story is very straightforward. A soldier returns to his father’s farm. Instead of waiting for the morning bus, he sets off on foot. (The character’s resolution against using a machine to do something that he could do himself echoes Berry’s provocative promise that he would never use a computer.) He walks until dark, sleeps in a church, and sets off again in the morning. The moment most imprinted in my mind comes when he nears the farm and stops to wash and shave in a creek. He lies in the sun to warm back up and falls asleep. When he wakes, he sets off to complete his journey. The scene where he is greeted by his father and his brother is understated but deep with emotion.

IV. Fidelity

Another long story. This one is also more complex than most because it takes various different perspectives. This is also one where Berry speaks an explicit political opinion through his characters. I greatly appreciated its criticism of the absurd and anti-human aspects of bureaucracy and legal morality.

V. Are You All Right?

This story celebrates the subtle ways love and beauty appear in the mundane when one lives a life in nature and among friends. And, like Pray Without Ceasing, it ends with a twist that deepens the meaning of the story.