As someone who grew up on farms in northern Illinois, I find many novels with rural settings annoying. Some authors romanticize small towns and farm life to the point of the treacly. Others sneer at rural dwellers and their way of life. Kent Haruf gets it right.
Eventide is set in Holt, a small town on the high plains of eastern Colorado, and picks up the story of several characters from Haruf's earlier book, Plainsong. I first read Plainsong and Eventide in rapid succession and didn't feel Eventide held up to its bestselling predecessor. This time, read in more isolation (although I did see the wonderful DCPA production of the play based on Plainsong last spring), Eventide felt stronger.
As Eventide opens, Victoria Roubideaux, the pregnant teenager of Plainsong, is now a young mother about to leave for college in Fort Collins with her daughter Katie. As the McPheron brothers, the elderly ranchers who took Victoria in when she was pregnant and homeless, cope with the loneliness they feel in Victoria and Katie's absence, Haruf introduces five other children, who aren't lucky enough to have Raymond and Harold McPheron in their lives. Joy Rae and Richie live with their parents, who love their children but are unable to protect them from a violent uncle. D.J. is an 11-year-old boy who is essentially a parent to his grandfather. The connection that D.J. makes with a neighbor girl named Dena is beautifully portrayed, but Dena and her sister Emma also face challenges at home: their mother is depressed, drinking, and dating inappropriate men.
While there are moments of hope and even joy in Eventide, the children's stories are profoundly sad. Haruf's spare style keeps the book from falling into melodrama, but the loneliness and pain are no less affecting for being told without flourishes.
Novel Conversations is reading this book for its September 2009 meeting; we chose it because it is the One Book/One Broomfield selection for this year--and I think it's a great book group selection. Unfortunately, I'm going to miss the meeting, but I'm hoping some of my colleagues will post their reflections on the discussion.
"It was still hot outside, though the sun had begun to lean to the west, and the first intimations of fall were in the air--that smell of dust and dry leaves, that annual lonesomeness that comes of summer closing down."
The September issue of 5280 Magazine has a nice series of short articles on communities on Colorado's High Plains, along with wonderful photographs: http://www.5280.com/issues/2009/0909/feature.php?paeID=1888
Plainsong was on President Obama's reading list for his recent vacation.