The Tie That Binds by Kent Haruf
This is Kent Haruf’s first novel and my favorite. Edith Goodnough’s story is told by her neighbor, Sanders Roscoe. Edith’s parents arrive in the High Plains of Holt, Colorado in 1896 from Iowa to homestead. Edith’s mother is worn out and dies in 1914. Edith assumes her mother’s tasks of cooking, cleaning, gardening, canning, milking, etc and helps her brother, Lyman, and her father with the farming tasks. Roy Goodnough, Edith’s father, survives a violent accident shortly thereafter which mangles his hands and lives “enraged forever” until 1952. Lyman escapes the farm in 1941 when he leaves to join the army (which doesn’t take him) and stays away, living in many places throughout the USA, until 1961. He annually sends a postcard from the town he’s currently staying and a bundle of twenty dollar bills. Edith treasures and saves these and awaits his return. Since the Roscoes and the Goodnoughs are neighbors we learn how their lives intertwine and as well the heartbreaks each Sanders, his parents, and grandmother endure.
This is a remarkable novel for the range of human circumstances it describes and the windswept setting for these trials and joys with straight ahead, unflinchingly beautiful language. An example:
Page 58: “But in the summer of 1922 she must have been just about perfect. She was slim and quick, with brown eyes and brown curly hair. She was woman breasted. She had strong hands. She was uncomplaining with plenty to complain about. She was….but hell, I don’t know how to describe women. Only look here, this is more what I mean: she was quiet and focused and there for you in a way that didn’t make you feel awkward or clumsy even when you were worse than both of those things, a failing on your feet as a newborn colt, as drunk as a just-dropped calf. She made you want to hold her there in the front seat of that car on that country road, hold her, put your arm around her, kiss her, breather her hair, talk to her, before, all those things you hadn’t told anyone else before, all those things beyond the jokes and the surface facts of yourself, things you yourself didn’t know for sure you felt or thought until you heard yourself telling them to her in the dark in the stopped car with your arm around her, because somehow it would be all right if she heard them and they would be true then. Edith Goonough must have been something that summer.”
Haruf’s characters are full-blown. Roy Goodnough, the father, is the character closest to single dimensional but even he had clear dreams and goals that he struggles mightily to achieve. His narrowing to an enraged man is substantially caused by the terrible accident, especially since he knows he holds some fraction of responsibility for it. Sanders Roscoe, Edith and Lyman Goodnough all have character attributes that are noble and some that are frustrating and even self-destructive at times. Haruf gives us some insight to the origins of all types for these characters and we are engaged to all their stories because of this.
This is a book that doesn’t let you go easily. We are saddened at times that “the family farm” is disappearing. Automation and mechanization have minimized the need for so much physical labor to eke out a living from the land. I don’t think we would really wish for children to be tied to the farm as the characters in this book are. Edith’s tie was most heartbreaking but Sandy was tied as well and was lost for a while as a result.
We live now in a time in which children often not only leave home and the community, but the state, the region, and even the country to live their lives. We count ourselves lucky, appropriately, that we can and do raise our kids to be independent adults. It’s sad when they actually demonstrate we’re successful and they can leave and be whole and productive members of society on their own. We mourn that “the tie that binds” seems gone at times. But we’re more glad than sad because the tie that binds is still present in many cases but takes forms that evolve and morph over time—internet, text messages, social media, family reunions, weddings and funerals, and as well coming home when family members need us while we figure out a way for them to be adequately supported by ourselves or others. There are more options now and we lose fewer Edith Goodnoughs to decades of loneliness—or at least I hope we do.