Friday, March 1, 2013

Benediction - Haruf's latest about Holt

Dad Lewis is dying. The cancer is all over him. By September he will be gone.

Benediction (Knopf), is Kent Haruf’s latest novel about life and lives in the eastern Colorado town of Holt. Holt is a fictional town but Haruf creates for us such a strong sense of place and authenticity that for us - particularly those of us who have spent anytime in the small towns of eastern Colorado or western Kansas - Holt is very real.

Haruf’s narrative about Holt began with The Tie that Binds and continued through Eventide. Benediction takes place over a couple of hot summer months as Dad Lewis moves closer and closer to death. We spend time with him and his wife Mary and daughter Lorraine as the inevitable moves closer, day by day; we learn about their present lives and things about their past - the past, is indeed prologue - and the son who is no longer there. As with Haruf’s other books, we meet other residents of Holt, neighbors, friends even casual acquaintances. We learn about their lives and past.

Dad and Mary met and were married in 1948. Dad eventually purchased the hardware store where he worked; "he was a known man in town by then, the bankers knew him, and gave him the loan without question." He ran it successfully up until the present.

Lorraine, their daughter, now lives in Denver but has come home to be with her father and mother as the end draws near. She has already had tragedy in her life. We don’t know whether she will stay.

Their neighbor, Berta May is now raising her granddaughter, 8-year old Alice. Alice doesn’t know where her dad is and her mother, Berta May’s daughter, has died of breast cancer.

There is 60-year old Alene, a retired school teacher who has returned to Holt to live with her mother Willa. Alene never married but was terribly in love once.

There is also Reverend Lyle, only recently come to Holt, from Denver, as the minister at the Community Church. Lyle has a troubled teenage son, a troubled marriage and a troubled soul.

Haruf interweaves the current with significant scenes from the characters’ past. This flow makes the present more meaningful. The characters are not perfect, they have made mistakes, had tragedy befall them, and had regrets. But they have, for the most part, persevered and tried to do the right thing. While sadness marks their lives in many ways and there is sadness in the novel, there is also a tremendous sense of hope and humanity. Life does go on and sadness is as much a part of the rhythm of life as joy.

Haruf’s style is a strong mix of spare dialogue and prose that nonetheless evokes the time and place and people in an economical but powerful way. He draws us into these characters; he involves us in their lives and their past; we care about them and what may happen to them: there is a tremendous humanity to them.

Haruf is a wonderful writer, with a style well suited to the west.

Plainsong, an earlier novel about Holt was made into a Hallmark Television movie. That, rather glib, adaptation was not very successful in my view; Haruf’s characters became one-dimensional caricatures. Plainsong and its follow-up Eventide also were adapted to the stage by the Denver Center Theatre Company.

I don’t know whether there will be another story coming from Holt, but I hope so.

Kent Haruf will be at the LoDo Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver, March 6, to read from Benediction and sign copies.

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