Thursday, April 4, 2013

Benediction, by Kent Haruf

For readers of Kent Haruf's Plainsong and Eventide, returning to the town of Holt, Colorado, feels like coming home--though there is less character cross-over here than in the previous two books (we do get a brief update on the McPheron brothers). The central character in Benediction, is "Dad" Lewis, who is dying from cancer. Although he is devoted to his wife Mary, he hasn't always been the greatest father, devoting too much time and energy to his hardware store and failing to accept his gay son. Daughter Lorraine has returned to Holt from Denver to help her mother care for Dad. As Dad gradually grows weaker, he struggles to accept the mistakes he has made.

As with Haruf's earlier books, other characters' stories are also woven into the narrative. Dad and Mary's next door neighbor Berta May is caring for her granddaughter Alice, whose mother recently died of cancer. Alice provides a focal point for the women in the story, most particularly Lorraine, whose teenager daughter was killed in a car accident some 15 years ago, and Alene Johnson, a retired school teacher who never married or had children because the one man she had ever loved was an already-married school principal. Another thread in the story has to do with the pastor of the Community Church, a man named Lyle, who has been sent to Holt because he got into some trouble at his church in Denver. His wife and teenage son are struggling to adjust to the small town, and their efforts are not made easier by Lyle's preaching in a vein that his congregants are unused to; the sections about the minister's family quickly became my favorites.

Haruf has a spare but elegant style that makes Holt and its inhabitants seem real--both ordinary and extraordinary. In his quiet way, he explores death, coming to terms with the choices we have made in life, what it means to be a parent, and how love (of a romantic partner, a parent or child, even a job) shapes our lives. Because the characters in Benediction are not quite as compelling as those in Plainsong and Eventide,  the book is, for me, not quite up to the standard of those two works. That said, I still enjoyed it greatly.

Favorite passages:
He stood in front of houses in the shadows of trees and looked in through the windows opened to the summer nights, watching people. The little dramas, the routine moments. People moving about in the rooms, people eating and getting up from the table and crossing in the flickering blue light of television and at last turning out of the darkened rooms . . . the precious ordinary.

She became part of the history of the town, like wallpaper in the old houses--the aging lonely isolated woman, the unmarried schoolteacher living out her days among other people's children, a woman who'd had a brief moment of excitement and romance a long time ago and afterward had retreated and lived quietly and made no more disturbance.


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