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 Plainsong and very much enjoyed it; so I was prepared for evocative imagery, moving family and community situations and beautiful restrained language. This book delivers on all that and so much more. I wasn’t prepared for how much this story would move me.
Set in the fictitious Colorado town of Holt (the setting for Plainsong and Eventide) – this story carries a strange timelessness, shared by its predecessors. Ostensibly set during the most recent Iraq war, in the aftermath of the September 11th bombings, the themes relating to this are universal enough; it feels as though the characters could be responding to any recent conflict.
The plain writing and dialogue are so sparse and matter of fact as to take away any sense of place other than small, local, community. There are no speech marks, so the dialogue flows alongside the text, drawing you ever onwards; rather than pulling you out into a conversation. (I’m not sure if that description makes sense, but it feels right.) This is not an author who yells dramatically; his works are a mastery of quiet, intimate reflection.
On the face of it; this is a book illustrating the complexity of human misery – across three different families in vastly different situations. So it was startling to find that at different moments, I utterly identified and understood at least one member of each group as though I had lived their experience. As a result, I temporarily loathed, despaired and resented at least one other member of each group as thoroughly (especially when a chapter before I had identified with them.)
Not that it was all doom and gloom – there is one* particular section involving three generations of women throwing off convention and embracing the world – albeit in an isolated way – that is so imbued with laughter and joy and fun that I couldn’t help myself from giggling along.
A few years ago, I couldn’t have picked up a book that dealt with a family coping with a terminal illness, let alone cancer. Perhaps it was time that I did so and I’m so pleased it was this book. Dad Lewis was not a fascinating man – he had not lived a dramatic or adventurous life. He was grumpy and had alienated and abandoned and caused pain along the way.
But he had lived and his hopes and dreams; guilts and regrets are captured here in a way that rang incredibly true to me. That he is visited by those ghosts he can never make peace with (not in a Dickension way) also struck me as incredibly well realised and – frankly – had me in tears more than once.
This is an incredible book and one that has touched me profoundly. I will be revisiting Plainsong and reading Eventide for the first time very soon, as well as seeking out the rest of Kent Harufs writings.
*Nah, I kinda lied. It’s literally just that one section. Otherwise all misery but in a very pure and worthwhile way.