Berry’s lifelong ruminations on the theme of human community and its ties to the soil culminate in Stand By Me. This collection of 18 short stories, published individually between 1984 and 2015, traces the decline of the fictional, adjoining Kentucky towns of Port William and Hargrave and the lives of the people within them over the course of a century. Berry’s stories follow a “membership” of connected families, from Port William’s early days in 1888 as a rural outpost on the fringes of civilization up to 1981, by which time real estate companies have bought the farms so meticulously and lovingly maintained by generations of Port Williamites and transformed them into purely functional suburban housing. A deep melancholy pervades Berry’s tales of Port William’s later days, as beloved point-of-view characters die off and, unlike in previous generations, are not replaced in the membership by offspring interested in taking up the hard work of maintaining the land. Instead, the young of Port William flock to cities and universities, where they are made either too rich or too smart to ever consider the life of a farmer. Despite being written decades apart, the last few stories in Berry’s collection consistently portray Port William’s future as dire. These stories, the shared culture of generations of centuries-old families like the Feltners, Coulters, Rowanberrys, Catletts, Proudfoots, and Branches, will soon have no one to remember them. Port William’s bucket is being overturned.
Read all of "The Wealth of Intimate History: On Wendell Berry's 'Stand By Me'" by John-Paul Heil in Los Angeles Review of Books.