Wendell Berry is an eighty-eight-year-old farmer in rural Kentucky. He is also a former professor at Stanford University, a novelist, poet, essayist, environmentalist, and critic of modern American culture. My wife, Sarah, and I have read most of his novels and short stories; our stand-alone favorite is Jayber Crow.
This novel traces the life of Jayber Crow from a little boy to an old man. One book reviewer from Goodreads said this about Jayber, Jayber wanders through life until he ends up back in his hometown region of Port William, Kentucky, where he becomes the town’s barber.
The setting of many of Wendell Berry’s novels, Port Williams is a farm town and river on the banks of the Ohio and Kentucky Rivers. The descriptions of the land, farm life, and accessing the river’s resources are interesting, especially since the setting of this novel is 1932.
Jayber, single and alone, lives in a small apartment above his barber shop, which serves as a center of community and communication, of stories, gossip, laughter, jokes, and serious conversations. Jayber slowly gains respect, trust, and friendships, and his wisdom is revealed as he makes observations and engages with the people, life, and rhythms of Port Williams, Kentucky.
Here are some of my favorite quotes from Jayber Crow:
“Some nights in the midst of this loneliness I swung among the scattered stars at the end of the thin thread of faith alone.”
“After a while, though the grief did not go away from us, it grew quiet. What had seemed a storm wailing through the entire darkness seemed to come in at last and lie down.”
“The mercy of the world is you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
“Some of the best things I have ever thought of I have thought of during bad sermons.”
The characters in Jayber Crow overlap into several generations and different novels by Wendell Berry. Their humanity, wisdom, struggles, successes, and foibles are well depicted. After meeting these characters in a few of Wendell Berry’s novels, I feel like I know them personally. In the words of another Goodreads book reviewer: I agree with this assessment and give Jayber Crow five stars.