The Membership: Jayber Crow Discussion Group(4)

  • He shows up every Sunday morning with a big smile and a small canvas bag full of candy. Swarms of children greet his arrival with joy, but it’s his warm handshake and sincere delight in their lives that keeps those relationships alive as the kids become teens and then move on to adulthood.
  • She is a widow, rattling around in a big, white New England farmhouse with a rescue dog and any number of semi-feral cats. Only a few people know that she is a member of the Cycling Hall of Fame. Even fewer know that she hires eager young boys to work hard, pays them well, and then gives them solid counsel for wise future choices.
  • Her husband lived well into his nineties, a World War II veteran who sat around our marshmallow fire one evening sharing stories of lunch with Ernie on the streets of Paris. (We later found that Ernie’s last name was Hemingway.)

And behind every door, seated in every pew in my world — and in yours —  lives another story. Whether dazzlingly unique or quietly mundane, each story is one part of the membership that enriches our own stories.

The Port William Membership

The matter-of-fact unfolding of Jayber Crow’s story is set against the backdrop of a small town along the banks of the Kentucky River, and it is acted out in manifold stories of the citizens of Port William, referred to by Jayber as The Membership. They range from the sublime — such as Mr. Mat Feltner who “looked right through your eyes, right into you, as a man looks at you who is willing for you to look right into him”  — to the ridiculous, personified by Cecelia Overhold who landed in Chapter 10 in a blaze of fury, insults, and rock-throwing rage.

Burley Coulter is such a well-developed character that I found myself wondering about his Enneagram type. Anyone have a theory? I’m thinking that his caring acts on Jayber’s behalf reveal him as a 2, but I’m open-minded.  I liked Burley the minute he picked Jayber up and deposited him safely on the banks of his future home town, but the way he stood with his hands inside the bib of his overalls on the Feltner’s door stoop, then his “conscientious sense of humor” and the way he filled Jayber’s plate at the “Worter Dranking Party” completely won my heart.

Loafers and Customers

Both Jayber and Burley seemed to consider that “loafers” were standard equipment for a small town barbershop.  And it’s clear that Jayber spent some time thinking about barbering as a profession — or a vocation? I’d stop short of saying that he had a “theology of barbering,” but he certainly had the rudiments of an epistemology:

“I don’t mean for you to believe that even barbers ever know the whole story. But it’s a fact that knowledge comes to barbers, just as stray cats come to milking barns. If you are a barber and you stay in one place long enough, eventually you will know the outlines of a lot of stories and you will see how the bits and pieces of knowledge fit in. Anything you know about, there is a fair chance you will sooner or later know more about. . . I am amazed at what I have come to know, and how much.” (94)

Some of Jayber’s loafers eventually became customers, and it seemed to be their responsibility to keep him humble. The barber, apparently is just another inevitable part of nature:

“The growth of hair called forth the barbershop. The barbershop called forth the barber. I was there as expectably as the furniture and the stove, as the town itself and the river down at the foot of the hill.”

With conversations flying around Jayber, and customers paying him without even looking at him, it’s no wonder that Jayber was privy to so many of other peoples’ stories.

What always takes me by surprise with Jayber is his compassionate heart, and this next observation will only resonate for those who have also read Marilynne Robinson’s trilogy about the Reverend John Ames, another of my favorite fictional theologians. Rev. Ames spoke of baptizing his membership with a special tenderness, touching their heads with a kind of knowing and intimacy that endeared them to his pastor’s heart. I see this same tenderness in Jayber.

Doing some unauthorized looking ahead to page 231, Jayber refers to the barbershop of Port William as “a privileged position,” and he admitted that people confided in him “deliberately; sometimes, almost forgetfully.” While Jayber stopped short of his ministerial aspirations when he fled Pigeonville, he certainly fulfilled a crucial role for his congregation of loafers and customers who filled the seats in his shop.


I was happy to read that Jayber felt as if he had found a home and place of belonging. In typical small-town manner, it took two years for the old guard to invite Jayber to his first “worter dranking” party, but he took the invitation in the spirit with which it was delivered, realizing that his inclusion in that group would work alongside his bachelorhood to give him a role he described as “bystander.” He was not a stranger, but not a “good catch” for their daughters, either. Having settled into the niche of Port William barber as both home and identity, Jayber stopped wondering what he”was going to make of ” himself and, instead, decided to settle into the “perquisites of that office.”

Some Questions to Ponder

Sam Hanks is a man of studied perversity, apparently clenching his pipe (“as if he expected to be picked up and swung by it”) and his opinions with the same tenacity. We see this trait in Jayber’s shop in the way Sam argues a point for the sheer joy of it. But what could be his motive for the way he responded to Jayber’s attempt to thank him for and to repay the $5 gift from years before? Is it humility? Does he really not remember Jayber from their previous meeting? Is it possible that he’s playing with Jayber’s brain the way he antagonized John T.?

Did anyone else notice that when Jayber introduced himself by name for the first time in Port William (page 98 with Mrs. Coulter), he called himself Jonah? It seems as if the Port William Membership is also in the business of re-naming, but do you sense a difference between their methods and motives and those of Brother Whitespade?

Can you identify with Jayber’s need for geographical proximity in order to live his way into his losses? As I write today, I’m preparing for a visit from my sister who has not been back home since our mum passed away. She’s got that process ahead of her as she experiences a visit to the State of Maine that does not include a visit with Mum.

As we all grow older and as the people we love age alongside us, it is inescapable that we will begin to see our world “populated with presences and absences, presences of absences, the living and the dead.” (132) I’m thankful that Jayber (and Wendell Berry) concluded the time of mourning and remembering with this thought: “The world as it is [will] always be a reminder of the world that was, and of the world that is to come.” (132)


I look forward to reading your thoughts so be sure to share insights, blog posts, and your psychoanalyses of the Port William Membership in the comment space below!

There is much in these three chapters that I have not mentioned, but which is worthy of a good many paragraphs:  Jayber’s observations on the Overhold marriage, the role of remember-ers in a community, and the fact that Mrs. Coulter reminds me of my dear mother-in-law. However, I’ll keep this under 1500 words and will be here again next Thursday (October 5) having read Chapters 12-14.

Here’s the schedule for upcoming discussion posts:

Date…………………………………Topic of Discussion

OCTOBER 5……………………CHAPTERS 12-14
OCTOBER 12………………….CHAPTERS 15-17
OCTOBER 19………………….CHAPTERS 18-20
OCTOBER 26………………….CHAPTERS 21-23
NOVEMBER 16……………….CHAPTERS 30-32


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38 thoughts on “The Membership: Jayber Crow Discussion Group(4)”

  1. Jayber has won over my heart and burrowed deeply into my reflective thought. I can say without hesitation that it is one of the most impacting novels for creating such thoughts that I have read in some time. Novels often are delightful to read because they pull me along page by page (if well written) and I quickly am swept into the theme and plot, but Jayber Crow is not like that. Jayber arrests my attention by the description of his life and community, his thoughts and questionings. I often stop mid-page to consider something. My book has numerous Post-It flags on pages I want to revisit and the richest places that resonate with me are underlined or highlighted. Jayber reveals much about any life lived despite the time period and geography. He causes me to consider much about my own life and gives new words and meaning to things like mourning, community, and commitment. Yesterday’s post for me reflected some of my musings in response to him when he was finding his way home during the flood and my post on Friday will connect with the quotes you have here about what a barber hears and learns. It’s title is The Listeners. Here is the link to the post that is out: I am so glad I am on this journey with you! Thanks, Michele! ❤️

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I completely agree. Each time I read Jayber I get something new, and his internal dialogue just slays me. And some of his portrayals of characters are just so funny — because we all know people who are characters in real life, right? I’ll head over to read the current post, and am looking forward to Friday’s. I’m planning to do a collection of all these great posts on FB tomorrow. What a gift to be part of such a fun group of reader/writers.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I actually have finished the book and it is still simmering. I have another several posts I have drawn from the book that will show up over the next week or so.😊 Leave it to you to come up with a book that is irresistible!! Thanks, my friend!!💕

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Absolutely agreed! So many profound thoughts to consider. So many facets to his story to explore. This isn’t just a novel to be read but a novel where learning and growth in my own life can take place.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Jayber’s life as it unfolds reminds me of the essential difference between calling and profession. He settles in as a barber by profession but his pastor’s heart is clearly in evidence. (Yes! some similarity to M. Robinson’s Rev. Ames. Loved those books!!) He is a sort of pastor/caretaker/shepherd by calling, but lived out beside a barber’s chair instead of a pulpit! (Funny, both deal with blessing heads!) The same contrast of profession/calling could be said of countless persons, including moms who write, or is it writers who mother? ( :

    As for Sam Hanks and his apparent ignorance of the $5, I am not so gracious as you, Michele in attributing this to humility or true forgetfulness. I would suspect it is mostly a response of pride. He was duped into giving money to a lad he should have recognized and to receive it back would be an insult to his sense of being a successful businessman. What’s $5! Admittedly I would prefer to imagine that maybe, just maybe he did recognize Jonah Crow as the gangly tramp but didn’t want to embarrass him, only to bless him… He did have a kind heart whichever way we interpret his present response. Interesting how we are all a mix of motives and personality quirks and conflicting bits…

    I had a question re: Burley Coulter. Do you have any idea how he is related to Hannah Coulter of the book by that name?

    I love the way you re-cap things. So fresh and readable! Thanks Michele.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for making that helpful distinction between calling and profession. I am amazed at how often this theme pops up in Jayber, and I had not noticed it in previous reaidngs. I also appreciated the way you pointed out that we are ALL a mix of motives. And THANK YOU for asking the question about Burley and Hannah, because the story is just precious. Hannah was either married to or engaged to (I can’t recall quite which, but if they were married it was only briefly) Virgil Feltner, Mat’s son who went missing in action in The War. After it became clear that he was dead, she married Nathan Coulter, one of Burley’s nephews that he mostly raised for his brother Jarrat. In Hannah’s book, she gives a whole lot more of the story behind the Feltners, and they are just as wonderful as Jayber paints them.


      1. Another benefit to the paper back version I’m reading . . . There’s a map and a family tree in the back. Whenever I look at the family tree, I wish I had time to read more of Berry’s fiction.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh, I wanted to comment on this business of renaming people. What a vast difference there is between being stripped of your name and given a generic J. as though you were now nameless vs. being renamed as an acknowledgment that you are more to the namer than merely your given name. A nickname implies a fondness or at least a knowledge of the person beyond what using their given name implies. I have a nickname with ‘my people’, the ones I grew up with, that feels so inappropriate in any other mouths. An aunt whom I very rarely hear from called me by this name on the phone recently and then quickly apologized as if somehow having grown up and moved away it was no longer fitting. I can assure her I still love to be called by this name by ‘my people’. It gives me a deep sense of being known and belonging to this tribe. Sadly the people who know me by this name are dying off. Another passed to glory this week… Will I still be _________ when they have all gone ahead of me to glory and none other calls me by this name?

    I have reflected on chapters 9-11, noted my favorite and funniest quotes, and made a couple of tie-ins to children’s books ( : at my Quotes and Notes blog this week. See:
    Thanks again Michele for hosting this great book-talk.


    1. I also feel the huge vacuum of “that generation” which is preceding us to heaven. This place is on its way to becoming a howling wilderness without them. I can’t wait to read your collection of quotes. Truly, even if it were not for the engaging story line, I think I’d keep reading this book just for the rich language and beautiful sentences — and the quirky things Berry puts into the mouths of his characters. I’ll be heading over to your place to enjoy the Quotes and Notes!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thus the circle of life spreads forward doesnt it? We grow from sprouts to adults to older adults to Glory. Life for those behind remains the same and yet doesn’t at the same time.

        Linda I think your nickname will continue to be you even when those calling you are gone. I have a nickname someone I never knew gave me when I was a baby. My daddy used to call me by it too. It’s been years since he’s used it, I think after my mom initiated the divorce, but even if he never calls me that again it’s still a part of who I am.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Dear Michele,
    I agree with Pam–Jayber keeps creeping into my everyday thoughts when I least expect him to. His observations of those “dazzling stories” and characters around him invariably make me think, “oh yes, that reminds me of Mr.__, or Mrs.__.” And along with that thought, your question about Sam reminded me of so many crusty souls I’ve known who were almost embarrassed to admit they had a soft spot underneath their gruff exterior! I wonder if Sam is “pretending” to forget his long-ago kindness? As far as the re-naming, I wonder if there’s a sense of intimacy that we gain with someone we love when we allow their renaming of us? Such good questions this week! All of those characters that Jayber has introduced to me have caused me to look more deeply into my own character. So here is where the Lord directed my post this week:

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love the concept that we are all surrounded by stories and it’s inevitable that they would overlap. Jayber makes that so clear. I’m looking forward to visiting your place and reading about your thoughts in more depth. Honestly, this has been such a fun gathering of souls each week!


  5. Like Linda, my thought on Sam Hanks $5 was pride. He was duped by a young man with a sob story and, I think, didn’t want to admit it.

    The renaming of Port William seemed affectionate instead of cold- like going from one stripped of identity to one given identity. I think it’s a precious thing to have a nickname in a community that bestows it in love!

    I can’t say I identify with needing geographical proximity in the mourning process. Perhaps I just haven’t had a similar enough experience yet, though. I appreciate the insight into having a sense of place- and especially that sense coming from presences of absences.

    Great questions this week, and insights too, Michele, thank you! So enriches the reading.


    1. I think you and Linda are on to something. And I agree with you about nicknames. The only experience I’ve had with the geographical proximity thing is walking with my sister through the loss of both our parents. It’s been harder for her to absorb the reality of it because she lives far away and their absence is not as present to her.
      Thanks for reading along, Bethany, and for offering your insights.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve pondered that someone who considers himself a bystander in the community can still feel such a deep sense of home and care so deeply about the people. You just never know what’s going on in some people’s hearts. Jayber reminds me a bit of a man I read about in Dan Walsh’s Reunion – a quiet man just doing for people as he has opportunity, and none of them knew he was actually a war hero. Jayber doesn’t have that kind of background, but does have that same sense of being a quiet figure who cares deeply. Like you said at the beginning, everybody has a story.

    I am not sure with Sam Hanks whether his refusal to accept the $5 back was pride, or just an acknowledgement that it was given and not expected to be returned, and instead of arguing over that, it was easier to act as if it hadn’t happened.

    When we went to TX for my mom’s funeral 11 years ago, one of the hardest things was being in her home, especially after the bulk of the relatives left and it was quiet again, and expecting to see her come around the corner, yet knowing that she wouldn’t. We haven’t been able to go back since we now take care of my m-i-l in our home, but I have wondered if, when we do, it will still be hard because I am still used to seeing her in that setting, or whether it will be changed enough in the interim so as to discourage that feeling. I guess we’ll see when it happens.


    1. I noticed the seeming contradiction there with Jayber, but I wonder if it is just his tendency to hold himself aloof.
      And I’m loving all the different theories of Sam Hanks. I want to go back and re-read all the comments and put together a coherent theory based on all of them.
      And regarding your mum, it does seem to take a while for our hearts and our brains to absorb a loss. My sister in law passed away about five years ago, but whenever there’s a family occasion, my husband and I still have a fleeting thought that it will be nice to see her — and then we remember.
      Thanks, Barbara, for chiming in here with such good insights.


  7. Once again, there are so many things to ponder in these chapters and not enough room to fish them out in a comment.

    It was interesting that “J” found his given name when he introduced himself to Burley’s mother (Zelda)? He certainly must have realized that an introduction any other way might not spark a recollection of who he was. It’s also intriguing that his given name doesn’t seem to stick with him very long even though that’s how he was known as a child in that neighborhood. It’s almost like he’s someone else. Someone with a connection but not connected at the same time. Being a barber in a small town lent itself that way too. Being busy doing his trade, those around him almost forget he’s there. This seems to fit Jayber’s life quite well. Belonging, but not really belonging. He seems to be okay with that lot in life.

    He tells us that when he saw Burley Coulter on the banks, he found a stirring desire to belonging, but after reading the next chapters, I wonder? Did he really feel at home? He tells us he did but I wonder was it because he had returned to “his” people, or was it the more going back to what was familiar and comfortable? I was reminded of so many foster/adopted children that struggle with allowing themselves to be loved to the point of doing whatever is necessary to destroy the relationship. While I certainly don’t see this extreme in Jayber’s life, having faced so many losses early in life and being institutionalized without loving care had to shape some of that. Then I wonder if he really tried to belong? I wonder if he trusted really belonging? If he even knew what belonging meant? Did he protect himself by staying distant and standoffish? Living and working in the same building certainly kept him more isolated than if he had lived in a neighborhood and worked in town. He’d had so many endings. Did that make him more of a loner than he might have been if life circumstances had been kinder to him?

    I am glad Berry gave us a glimpse into Jayber’s grieving process. It seems the Good Shepherd had not allow the children in their care to have a past, nor even a present; only an existence. I had often wondered if he had processed his losses or if he trudged forward with life in a new place until he found his way back to his roots. Going back and seeing all the places of his youth very likely gave him some closure that he had not received otherwise and most likely helped that sense of belonging grow. I’m curious to see what the future holds for Jayber as his life continues to unfold as we read.

    I’m intrigued that so early in his return to Port William, Jayber realized he would never be able to box his life up and carry it off again. Was this because of his position as the town barber or because of his connection to the community in his youth? Or maybe he just felt it so. Until now, it seems he reminisced in the days of his youth and avoided getting too involved in present day. Thinking back to his days with Cordie and Othy, he didn’t seem to be distant then.

    Jayber shows us that your past truly shapes and molds the person you become.

    I cannot tell you how much I am enjoying reading everyone’s comments!


    1. Yes, I agree with you that Jayber seems to be fine with his position on the fringes of things. I hadn’t thought of this in terms of an attachment disorder, but there may be something of that in Berry’s mind as he created Jayber.
      And I think when Jayber went to The Good Shepherd, he had so many losses to grieve that they all got lumped into homesickness and experienced in that way. That scene in which he sits by the river and remembers and re-lives the sadness was so well written, and I think it could be read as permission to feel our feelings. He did not take up residence in sadness, but just let his heart feel the losses and say his goodbyes.
      Jayber certainly becomes one of The Membership in his own awkward, bachelor-barber way, and I know that you are going to enjoy the unfolding of his tale.
      I agree with you that the insights each one has shared in this reading process have been so important to helping me enjoy the book more.


  8. I’m not reading the book but your thoughts on the characters certainly grabbed my attention. I lived in a small town for a time while in College so immediately thought of the small barbershop while reading. The beauty shop is another gathering place for “stories”.
    Bartenders, barbers, beauticians, and waitresses hear many stories throughout their day. They are hardly noticed but the things they can tell…


    1. And we are blessed without even realizing it by the “listeners” and “attention payers” who surround us, often unseen and unappreciated. Jayber reported that he felt like part of the town, kind of in the same way his barber chair was part of the room, and so he became a repository for many stories. I imagine that a good number of people in service roles feel the same way.


  9. I was moved by your last couple of paragraphs. Going back to places changed by the loss of people is one of the powerfully difficult parts of grieving. I’ll say a prayer for your sister.


  10. Michele, thank you for introducing me to Jayber. I absolutely need to add this to my list of books to read. Thank you for partying with Blogging Grandmothers. I have shared your article on social media.


    1. Jayber has such an awareness of that river throughout the book. And eventually, he gets to live in a cabin within sight of it. If you ever get a chance to read Jayber, I’d love to hear your impressions.


  11. Sounds as if you are diving deep into this story, Michele. A good book will do that to a person–immerse them so deep that you feel as if you are walking alongside the characters. Interesting how Jayber views being a barber, since I was just at the hairstylist yesterday. And yes, I think of them much the same. They are like counselors with scissors in hand–gathering quite a bounty of insight into the people they groom. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this book, my friend! You are an amazing lady to read so many great books for us!


  12. I hope that your sister’s visit was a healing one, albeit a grieving one as well. It’s hard to return to a place when it’s missing our loved one. This is so true:

    As we all grow older and as the people we love age alongside us, it is inescapable that we will begin to see our world “populated with presences and absences, presences of absences, the living and the dead.”


  13. Am I living under a rock? Is it bec. I didn’t homeschool? I’ve never heard of this book. What I gleaned this morning (under my rock) is to: settle into what God’s called me to–stop wondering what I’m going to make of myself, and learn the perquisites of today and maybe tomorrow. Amen and amen.


    1. Maybe you don’t read much fiction because you are so busy writing inspirational words and making delicious food for your revolving table sitters. Wendell Berry is a poet as well as a novelist, so I am always sort of swoony when I read his books.
      Sounds as if you got the main points!
      Good to hear from you!


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