Constance Alexander: fictional KY family struggles reflect the past and predict the future


Names of American servicemen killed at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 (Photo by Razak Abu Bakar)

On December 7, 1941, news of the attack on Pearl Harbor interrupted regular radio programming, disrupting church services, movie screenings, and Sunday dinners. At first, some details of the devastation were withheld to avoid panic, but what was revealed was exposed enough for the public to realize that the losses were staggering.

The next day the United States declared war on Japan and a few days later Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. Congress responded by declaring war on these two countries, which were already at war with England.

Imagine the days on the home front: teenagers skipping school to enroll in military service. Women worry about sons, husbands and other loved ones who go to war. High school kids marked their calendars with the dates of upcoming Christmas dances and the holiday season, while toddlers wrote letters to Santa, promised to be kind, and reveled in the fun. magic of twinkling lights and silver garlands.

Wendell Berry’s novel “Hannah Coulter” embraces a lifetime in the fictional community of Port William, Kentucky. As Hannah recalls her own childhood, young loves and loss, raising children and the changing seasons, she recounts the family activities of Christmas 1941, capturing the tension of a “kind of pressure against the future or any discussion of plans ”.

“After Pearl Harbor,” the story goes, “our voices sounded different to us, as do the voices in a house after an outside door opened.”

At the start of Chapter 5, titled “What We Were,” Hannah Steadman and Virgil Coulter got married. With war apparently inevitable, they dared to imagine a life together. As Christmas approaches, they decided to make the most of it.

The cooking, the decoration, the festive preparations involved all the members of the family. “Each of us knew that the others were dealing with the thought of war almost all the time, but that thought we kept secretly silent from our minds… War was a bodily presence. It was in all of us, and no one said a word.

Sixteen family members gathered to exchange simple gifts and share a sumptuous meal on Christmas Day. “That day everyone had something to remember, something that others also remembered, about other Christmases and that day until now, and they told them to enjoy it again and enjoy it together. ”

At the end of the day, one of the guests finally said, “I think we better go. Then more followed, amid the usual long farewells and the gathering of hats, coats and gifts.

When a parent started counting noses, she realized that little Andy was missing. She finally found him in the dining room, in the corner at the end of the sideboard, crying.

“The knowledge of this is beyond us all. He did not know, like us adults, what war meant and could mean. He had only understood that who we were that day was beautiful and could not last.

For vacation reading, or even any time of year, “Hannah Coulter” is a compelling story told through the voice of an elderly widow. Although this is fiction, it feels real but reflects a past that most of us have never known.

Currently, the world is suffering from many ills, including a pandemic. The threat of a new variant of the coronavirus breeds suspicion, uncertainty and political hype. Eighty years after Pearl Harbor, we pay more attention to Black Friday and Cyber ​​Monday news than to our history.

“Things are falling apart,” poet William Butler Yates might say today, as he did in his famous poem, The Second Coming. “The center cannot hold …”

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