Benediction by Kent Haruf
2013 Alfred A. Knopf
Finished on 5/22/13
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)
From the beloved and best-selling author of Plainsong and Eventide comes a story of life and death, and the ties that bind, once again set out on the High Plains in Holt, Colorado.
When Dad Lewis is diagnosed with terminal cancer, he and his wife, Mary, must work together to make his final days as comfortable as possible. Their daughter, Lorraine, hastens back from Denver to help look after him; her devotion softens the bitter absence of their estranged son, Frank, but this cannot be willed away and remains a palpable presence for all three of them. Next door, a young girl named Alice moves in with her grandmother and contends with the painful memories that Dad's condition stirs up of her own mother's death. Meanwhile, the town’s newly arrived preacher attempts to mend his strained relationships with his wife and teenaged son, a task that proves all the more challenging when he faces the disdain of his congregation after offering more than they are accustomed to getting on a Sunday morning. And throughout, an elderly widow and her middle-aged daughter do everything they can to ease the pain of their friends and neighbors.
Despite the travails that each of these families faces, together they form bonds strong enough to carry them through the most difficult of times. Bracing, sad and deeply illuminating, Benediction captures the fullness of life by representing every stage of it, including its extinction, as well as the hopes and dreams that sustain us along the way. Here Kent Haruf gives us his most indelible portrait yet of this small town and reveals, with grace and insight, the compassion, the suffering and, above all, the humanity of its inhabitants.
I’ve read all of Kent Haruf’s novels, beginning with Plainsong (which I thought was wonderful) and ending with Eventide (which I loved, even though it broke my heart). I wasn’t terribly impressed with his earlier works (Where You Once Belonged and The Tie That Binds), which I read later, but that didn’t stop me from feeling excited when I discovered he had a new novel this year. As with his previous works, Benediction is set in Holt, Colorado, and as with all of these novels, Benediction is a quiet, thoughtful story. One might call it spare. And yet it’s not simple, but rather rich and languid and quite mesmerizing.
And yet, in spite of the beautiful prose, Haruf’s new novel failed to knock Eventide from its place of honor as my favorite. I enjoyed the novel, but I never really came to care about any of the characters. Early on, I found it a bit confusing and wound up going back to the beginning in order to take note of the names and relationships between each of the characters. I even set it aside, waiting to devote more time to reading, hoping to be swept away. I packed the book in my carry-on bag and started reading (actually, re-reading) from the first page, as my plane took off for Oregon, and I wound up reading the entire book, finishing just as the plane began its descent into Portland.
Haruf, who was born in eastern Colorado, writes what he knows. Holt is based loosely on Yuma, Colorado, where Haruf once resided.
On the land:
They drove out from Denver away from the mountains, back onto the high plains: sagebrush and soapweed and blue grama and buffalo grass in the pastures, wheat and corn in the planted fields. On both sides of the highway were the gravel county roads going out away under the pure blue sky, all the roads straight as the lines ruled in a book, with only a few small isolated towns spread across the open country.
On death and dying:
He sat and drank the beer and held his wife’s hand sitting out on the front porch. So the truth was he was dying. That’s what they were saying. He would be dead before the end of summer. By the beginning of September the dirt would be piled over what was left of him out at the cemetery three miles east of town. Someone would cut his name into the face of a tombstone and it would be as if he never was.
I’m not sorry I read Benediction, but I am a little disappointed that it didn’t turn out to be one I could gush about. It’s an absorbing and satisfying read, and one which tugged at my heartstrings as the finale drew close, but it didn’t have the same magic I discovered in Plainsong and Eventide. Having said that, I do believe it’s time for a reread of those novels. I’d love to listen to them on audio, but unfortunately, they’re not available through my library. Perhaps it’s time to join Audible.com…