If you want to be lifted up, read Kent Haruf

Benediction book coverShe looked at the two old brothers….

I want you to think about taking this girl in.

They stared at her.

You’re fooling, Harold said.

No, Maggie said. I am not.

They were dumbfounded. They looked at her, regarding her as if she might be dangerous. Then they peered into the palms of their thick callused hands spread out before them on the kitchen table and lastly they looked out the window toward the leafless and stunted elm trees.    

                                                                             Plainsong, by Kent Haruf

Yesterday I finished reading Kent Haruf’s new novel, Benediction, about an elderly hardware store owner, Dad Lewis, dying of cancer.  I realized it was three years to the day since my father passed away from cancer. More than a coincidence, probably. I imagine something unconscious was at play. But I would have read this book eventually, no matter what, because I read everything Haruf writes.

My devotion to Haruf began when I read Plainsong, which he published in 1999. One of Haruf’s critics describes Haruf’s work as “exalted.” If you want to be exalted, get a copy of  Plainsong or Eventide or Benediction and drop into the lives of the folks who live on the dry plains in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado.

Haruf writes about goodhearted people way off the beaten path trying to do the right thing. His prose is entrancing, deceptively simple, powerful. You may begin to be lulled by the humanity Haruf captures on the page, but before you get to feeling incredulous he hits you with some dark reality: bigotry, abuse, cruelty, abandonment, addiction.

I was surprised Haruf said in an interview one of the books that most influenced him as a writer was Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, a novel that underwhelmed me both times I read it. But in Haruf’s plain, spare prose I can see Hemingway’s legacy. And it reinforces my interest in how what we read speaks to us, personally. That’s going to be different for everyone.

Benediction is a beautiful book, but an especially quiet and somber one. If you want to sample a novel by Haruf, I suggest you begin with Plainsong, which has more action and a greater diversity of intriguing characters, followed by Eventide and then Benediction. All are set in Holt, in eastern Colorado. Plainsong and Eventide are companion novels that feature the same cast, while Benediction introduces a new set of characters. I suspect Haruf may continue their stories in a future novel.

In Benediction, an eighty-year-old woman, two sixty-year-old women, and an eight-year-old girl skinny-dip on a hot afternoon in a muddy water trough for cattle. Cool and refreshed, they lie down under a tree in their thin, sleeveless cotton dresses to take a nap. Somehow, Haruf makes this scene riveting. It is emblematic of his writing.

Two of my favorite characters in all of fiction are Plainsong’s rough-hewn cattle ranchers Harold and Raymond McPheron, who take in Victoria Roubideaux, a homeless, pregnant teenager. They are so sweet, and clueless to the point of hilarity. One of the funniest scenes I’ve ever read is their visit to the ob-gyn with Victoria.

As much as I enjoyed Benediction, the McPheron brothers from Plainsong and Eventide will always be in my heart.

Plainsong book coverRaymond, you’re my brother. But you’re getting flat unruly and difficult to abide. And I’ll say one thing more.

What?

This ain’t going to be no goddam Sunday school picnic.

No, it ain’t, Raymond said. But I don’t recall you ever attending Sunday school either.

Quotes from Plainsong, Kent Haruf. Vintage Books, New York: 1999.

BY KENT HARUF:

Plainsong

Eventide

Benediction

The Tie That Binds

Where You Once Belonged

Five favorite books and blogs

Many thanks to Claire McAlpine, who tagged me in a Five Favorite Books challenge, which I’m to pass on to five other bloggers. Here goes, but before you read on, be sure to visit Claire’s delightful blog, Word by Word. Claire, who lives and works in the south of France, is a prolific, passionate reader who never fails to inspire me when I’m wondering which book to read next.

Of course, it’s impossible for me to name my five favorite books of all time, so here are five books I love that happened to come to mind as I sat down to write this:

I Know This Much Is True book coverI Know This Much Is True, by Wally Lamb.  I’ve read all of Lamb’s novels, but my favorite is I Know This Much Is True, about twin brothers, one with schizophrenia. Dominick Birdsey is an unforgettable character, and so is his brother, Thomas, who battles the demons of serious mental illness. My mother had schizophrenia, so for me this book is especially meaningful. Lamb’s portrayal of the illness is spot on. I Know This Much Is True blends comedy and tragedy as Dominick soldiers on in the difficult odyssey that is his life, the kind of real-life struggles we can all identify with. You just won’t want to stop rooting for Dominick, and I, for one, couldn’t stop reading until I found out whether he would end up with the love of his life.  I was taken with the darkly comic opening involving a librarian who has an especially trying day. (I read this before I knew I was going to become a librarian.) Check out Wally Lamb on Facebook. He’s a generous, down-to-earth author who loves talking with his readers.

In October, 2013, Lamb will publish his newest novel, We Are Water. In this video, Wally Lamb tells how We Are Water came about. Listening to his story will make you want to get the book, which I’ll be writing about in a future post.

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte. I’m a romantic, partial to female gothics, and there is the undercurrent of madness, which “transfixes” me (as Mr. Rochester would say). I read this in high school and have been fascinated and mystified by it ever since. Has anyone seen the most recent movie incarnation? I thought Mia Wasikowska and Amelia Clarkson (young Jane) were fabulous. And Judi Dench, of course.

When We Were Orphans, by Kazuo Ishiguro. When I was looking for a hyperlink to When We Were Orphans, I was surprised Wikipedia authors say it is regarded by some as Ishiguro’s weakest book. I don’t see that at all. For me, it eloquently captures childhood loss and its lifelong consequences, and there’s also the fascination of Ishiguro’s typically unreliable, self-deluded narrator. Except in this case I think the narrator comes to a sad, more realistic understanding of himself and the world. I’ll say no more since I’d like to write further about this book in the future.

Plainsong, by Kent Haruf. I loved visiting this small Colorado town and meeting the simple, kind, and decent people there. It does my heart good to know there are writers like Haruf creating fictional worlds like this one. I was swept away by Plainsong and the sequel, Eventide. Haruf makes writing look easy, but this sort of simplicity isn’t easy at all. I’ve not had the pleasure of reading his newest book, Benediction. Can’t wait. I’ll be sure to write about it here.

David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens. I read this in high school, too, and haven’t read it since then, so I want to revisit it sometime soon. Another deprived childhood story.  (Do you see a trend here?) After I read David Copperfield I felt I’d lived an entire life. This is a great book to read when you are young and just starting out, and then at least once again when you’re looking back. I believe there was a PBS version that aired in the dark ages when I was reading the novel. It, too, was wonderful.

FIVE BLOGS I LIKE:

A Leaf in Springtime  Sheer exuberance in writing and photography, by Sharon, who is Chinese (born in Malaysia) and now living in Finland.

The Hiker Mama  I love the Pacific Northwest, and I wish this blog had been around when we were hiking with our sons. Jennifer and I had the pleasure of taking a class together taught by Christina Katz.

Fine Little Day  Because I’m half Swedish and I love fabrics and country houses and all sorts of beautiful domestic things.

66 Square Feet  A tiny terrace garden, seasonal living, cooking in New York City, and travels to South Africa, by Marie Viljoen. Just beautiful, reminds me of my big city days.

Flowery Prose  Plants, veggies, flowers, gardens, the outdoors, and lots of fascinating information about all of these.

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