Wednesday, September 5, 2012
Memory of Old Jack by Wendell Berry
Memory of Old Jack by Wendell Berry was our bookclub read for August. Set in the rural midwest of the 1950's, it is, on the surface, the day in the life of 92 year-old Jack Beechum. All his life Jack has been a farmer, always on the same family farm. Now retired and safely settled in the town's boarding house due to his age, Jack has no real purpose and his day is spent shuffling from the general store, to the barbershop, to his nephew's farm for lunch, and to the boarding house. As he moves from one place to another, his mind travels the nine decades of his life, and readers are given truthful windows into his childhood, youth, courtship, marriage, and most importantly his deep ties to his land.
Berry published this work in 1974 and it has earned a place in American literature as a realistic novel of the "land." When surfing the net to learn more about the book, I found that several communities have chosen this book for an all community read. We found at book club that we had plenty to talk about.
Perhaps most significantly was Jack's marriage. What began with a great attraction between the two soon settled into a life of disappointments which totally lacked intimacy and passion. Perhaps the depth of that distance can be summed up by his wife's observation that she could not tolerate being touched by such rough hands. In essence she was rejecting everything about Jack. How could he care for the land and not have rough hands? Later when she is dying, Jack takes her hand and is amazed at its gentleness and fragility. Some readers may be touched that a thread of love remains between the two after decades of emotional boundaries; me, I couldn't get past the loss of opportunity for a real relationship.
While many who have read this book have admired Jack's tenacious relationship with the land, I felt a deep sadness that his personal life was so constrained and empty. Having grown up in farming communities, I feel like I may have witnessed similar dedication to the land at the expense of everything else. It is a similar story to the business person who gains success at work, but loses family and happiness. In the end, Jack accepted his life, cared for his farm digilently, and earned a deserved respect from his community, but I believe readers are meant to be unsettled by the price he paid.