Thursday, April 25, 2013

Benediction by Kent Haruf

Last month, I traveled to Colorado for a writers’ conference. I flew into Denver and spent the day touring downtown and my alma mater, the University of Denver, then headed south for the 70-mile trip into Colorado Springs. It’s a vast, beautiful state with geographical variety ranging from startling peaks to endless stretches of flat land, and weather that changes in the blink of an eye. When I tell people about our time there, I always talk about storms and the way the sky really does feel closer at the higher elevation, nature intruding into your daily life in a bigger, more immediate way.

Kent Haruf grew up in eastern Colorado, and he’s spent the vast majority of his life in middle America—university in Nebraska and Iowa, work in Wyoming, teaching in southern Illinois and a return to Colorado upon retirement. He knows about ranching and farming and small town life. In fact, his novels take place in the fictional small town of Holt, Colorado; the most famous is Plainsong (1999), a finalist for the National Book Award. I count it among my most favorite novels and Haruf is a favorite writer.

Benediction is considered the third in a Holt, Colorado trilogy, beginning with Plainsong and followed by 2004’s Eventide, although earlier novels are set in town too. I’d argue that Benediction is really a stand-alone. Aside from the shared setting and a brief (and probably superfluous) connection to the earlier novels, the story really doesn’t overlap. Thematically though, the three novels work as a cycle. Plainsong: vocal church music, unadorned melody; eventide: evening; benediction: a final blessing, often at the end of a church service (my definitions). Stylistically, they have the same easy, spare urgency, the same attention to each character’s humanity, the same ability to reach in and grab a reader’s heart and give it an insistent squeeze.

I was trying to describe Benediction the other night, trying to say what I loved so much about it. I talked about the high plains of Colorado, its rough qualities and intrusive changes. I mentioned Haruf’s focus on the “precious ordinary” in life. I described his characters, so familiar that you know them from the start. Then I talked about the story, the old man dying from cancer while stories from his life come to light. I began to lose my audience. So I related a scene from the book that had the biggest impression on me—three women, two middle-aged and one elderly—take a young neighborhood girl for a picnic. They lunch, drink wine and take a nap outside under the trees. They talk about things that happened to them in life. And then they skinny dip in the stock tank, the water kept for cattle. And once they’re in, they begin to teach the young girl to swim. A routine scene, perhaps boring? Actually, it’s one of the most poignant things I’ve ever read.

And it occurred to me that Haruf’s representations of women in this novel are among the most fully realized I’ve ever read. The way women take care of what needs to be done, day in and day out. The way they keep families and communities together. Because really, on a broader level, that’s what I love about Haruf’s writing. It’s just about life and the connections we make for our short time here. Family, neighbors, friends. The mistakes, the lessons, the joys. I can't describe the effect of his stories any more than a photograph of Colorado can give a complete impression. Trust me, you have to read these books.

Kent Haruf is seventy years old but I hope he’s got many more novels in him, many stories to tell before the final blessing. Read some prior ramblings about Haruf on this blog here and here.

1 comment:

"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka