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Book Review: “Jayber Crow” by Wendell Berry

November 30, 2010

I know that Wendell Berry has become extremely popular in recent years among emergent/hipster Christianity types, so at risk of being associated with that crowd, I’d like to throw it out that I’m a big fan of Mr. Berry from Kentucky. I enjoy his poetry. I think it is clever and witty and beautiful. I recently read my first novel of his, Jayber Crow, about the town barber in Berry’s fictitious Port William, Kentucky, a little hamlet on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River. I thought it was moving and wonderful.

I’m from a small town on the southern edge of Appalachia. My great-great-great-great grandfather John moved into this area when the Cherokee Indians were removed on the Trail of Tears and he won some land in a land lottery. I didn’t spend my life in Suburbia, so I know what it’s like to mourn the fact that the local feed and general store on the square and the local tire shop got closed down because Wal-Mart opened up. I can appreciate the setting and the story that Berry tells, even if I don’t necessarily buy everything he’s selling. (I.E. I’m not about to become a legalist and tell everyone they are going to hell for shopping at Lowe’s and not eating organic local produce, not that he would go that far either, but you get the point).

All that being said, this is a great story. Jayber Crow is the story of an orphan who found a home, found love and made peace with God. Early on Jayber was orphaned and had to leave Port William for a fundamentalist orphanage where he was reduced to J. Crow. He thought he wanted to become a fundamentalist pastor, but his questions about God and the Bible caused him to give up his calling and find his true calling, after a period of wandering, as the barber in his home town. Barely able to provide for himself, he isn’t much of a prospect for marriage, but he falls madly in love with a woman who loves another man…ultimately the love story if a great one, of honor and respect from afar.

The best part of this novel are the stories Jayber picks up along the way as the town barber and relays to the reader. This is a town full of strange customs and colorful characters. While I may not agree with Berry’s theology, you have to admire the honest struggle of a man being pursued and haunted by God like Jayber, and the ultimate peace he makes with his maker. The language of this novel is what you would expect from a poet like Wendell Berry, luscious. It’s as much a love story of place as it is a celebration of love between people. This is a great contribution to Southern Literature and I look forward to future adventures in Berry’s Port William Membership.


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