Berry, Wendell

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Annotated by:
Brown, Kate
  • Date of entry: Oct-09-1997


This story takes us to the fictional town of Port William, Kentucky where the traditions of family, farming, and freedom blend in a durable wholeness and wholesomeness of place. It is to this place that Burley Coulter is returned by his kin to die. In what turned out to be a mistaken expression of compassion, Burley's family took him to the doctor when, after eighty-two years, he fell ill. But then seeing him lying in the "mechanical room" of a hospital, attached to a life support system, his family conspires quietly and heroically to kidnap him so that he can die in his beloved woods.


Berry writes beautifully about the simple, strong fidelity of place and family in rural American traditions. His own loyalties are clear in this story as he juxtaposes the sincerity and depth of rural life with the shallow ruthlessness of city dwellers. The old man's friends and family rally to his rescue in the face of heartless strangers, most of whom remain faceless.

The medical system is perceived as clearly outside the bonds of rural family and place. Like others who "serve power," not love, the medical profession is suspect, especially when technologies begin to cloud the "art of medical mercy." Berry explains this position through the voice of the old man's family lawyer:

"Once the machinery gets into it, then the money gets into it. Once the money is there, then come the damned managers and the damned insurers and (I am embarrassed to say) the damned lawyers, not to mention the damned doctors who were there for the money before anybody. Before long, the patient is hostage to his own cure. The beneficiary is the chattel of his benefactors." (p. 174)

Berry's contrast of "good guys/good place--bad guys/bad place" can seem simplistic at times, but overall the story is compelling and can be a useful vehicle for discussions about ethical issues in the use of life support technology.

Primary Source

Five Stories



Place Published

New York



Page Count