For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘Kent Haruf

PlainsongI am fast becoming a leading member of the Kent Haruf fan club. After discovering Benediction not long ago, I was determined to read more of his work. At the library, they all looked so intriguing I couldn’t decide which one to borrow—so I took home all three. Plainsong was the first one I chose to read, because it was recognized as a National Book Award finalist. It was just as lovely as Benediction had been, and made me glad to have two more Haruf novels waiting on my shelf.

Plainsong unpacks the intertwining lives of ordinary, yet quirky, people in a small town east of the Rockies. (At one point, I became fascinated by where Holt might be, and whether it is a real place. It is a real county in western Nebraska, and the highways described match the highways on the map.) The characters include two young brothers, Ike and Bobby, 9 and 10, left alone much of the time to explore the town and their independence. Their mother is a minor character, afflicted by mental illness and recently separated from them and their father, but their father Tom Guthrie is central. He is a high school teacher who tangles with the family of a student he fails, and has a developing relationship with fellow teacher Maggie Jones. When student Victoria Roubideaux discovers she is pregnant and kicked out of her home, she turns to Maggie for help. Maggie turns to two reclusive brothers, Raymond and Harold McPheron to take her in.

Plainsong‘s style and story echo its title: a simple telling of their stories, and how they come together in unison, simple and unadorned. Ike and Bobby lose a bit of their childish innocence, discovering some harsh truths about sex and violence and relationships, but the adults in the story guide them through. Tom Guthrie and Maggie Jones help heal one another of broken relationships. Victoria and the McPheron brothers are the most unlikely of partners, and many of their awkward encounters made me chuckle. Still, they were charming and good-hearted, and Haruf has a way of weaving all his characters together such that they are all less lonely by the end of the story.

I was also intrigued by the western setting of the book, with stories about cattle and horses and rural life that offered a unique insight into this region of the country. I have driven through small towns in western Kansas, western Nebraska and eastern Colorado, and I could imagine all the scenes of the story in those locations.

Plainsong was lovely, through and through, with a kind of simple beauty that is only possible by refined, well-worn, carefully crafted prose. I am looking forward to the next Haruf novel in line, and hoping to encounter some of these characters “around town” next time.

Benediction by Kent Haruf, Alfred A. Knopf, 2013, 258 pp.

BenedictionThis book came in a big stack of like-new hand-me-downs from my mother-in-law’s next door neighbor. She and I share a love of reading, and she knows my preference for literary fiction and stories about women. This is one of the best ones she has ever passed my way. I’d never heard of Kent Haruf, but I want to hear much more from him.

Benediction is the story of a dying man, Dad Lewis, his wife, his daughter, and the community that holds him in his dying days. The book begins in the doctor’s office with the terminal diagnosis, and follows through until his death. It offers his own perspective, revealing secrets from his life that will remain hidden forever once he dies. Some are guilt-ridden, others are acts of compassion, most are a mix of the two, like the memories of most human lives. The story unpacks the relationship with his wife and daughter and estranged son, sorting through the past and the future that will not be.

Meanwhile, there is a secondary cast of characters–the community around Dad Lewis and his family. There are neighbors and church friends, even the pastor and his family. While Dad Lewis and his family are arrested by death and dying, their lives go on–teens explore sexuality, children enter families, new friendships develop, careers unravel. The world outside the Lewis home goes on without them.

As someone who spends a lot of time with people who are dying and their families, I can testify that this story has a depth of truth and insight into end-of-life situations . From the awkward visits to the easy ones, from the hard truth-telling conversations to the meaningless ones, Haruf captures what it’s like to be with the dying.

The thing that most captivated me, however, was the voice Haruf develops in his writing. It is a sparse style, with much dialogue and little to get in the way. Its descriptions are muted, as though there was a slight haze over everything, which seems entirely appropriate to the situation. The prose is simple, elegant and beautiful.

One of my favorite sections, of course, is from the pastor.

I’m finished as a minister. I haven’t done much good. … People don’t want to be disturbed. They want assurance. They don’t come to church on Sunday morning to think about new ideas or even the old important ones. They want to hear what they’ve been told before, with only some small variation on what they’ve been hearing all their lives, and then they want to go home and eat pot roast and say it was a good service and feel satisfied. (193)

That’s how I feel a lot of the time in ministry, and it felt good to see that named and reflected on the page–however depressing it is.

Benediction is a beautiful novel, and not nearly as melancholy as the topic makes it sound. The characters are endearing and real, so you can imagine them in their town having these conversations with one another. I recommend it highly.

 


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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