Pursuing a Dream Against Many Odds

Prairie Nocturne  By Ivan Diog; Published 2003;Read Dec 27, 2016

This book comes to us from Ivan Doig who was awarded the Wallace Stegner Award in 2007 by the Center for the American West among other accolades.  This story is set in Montana and New York during the Harlem Renaissance and tells the interlocking story of its three main characters:  Wesley Williamson, powerful business leader of a cattle-empire family, Susan Duff, former singer and now voice instructor, and Monty, Wes’s black chauffer with a remarkable voice Wes employs Susan to develop.  As Doig unfolds the story we gain insight into the past of the characters—Wes a successful military leader in the Great War, Susan’s loss of a brother in that war while under Wes’s command, the relationship between Wes and Susan that impacts Wes’ political career, Monty’s boyhood in the Montana fort commanded by John J. Pershing, and the connections they have from childhood.  Wes’s Catholic faith, Monty’s color, Susan’s instruction of Monty, and Monty’s possible success all become targets for the local KKK both in Montana and New York.   Doig’s beautiful writing carries us through this saga of struggle, loyalty, grip of the past, and the pain and rewards of career and passion.   The ending surprised me and, at first disappointed me, seeming in some ways “too nice and tidy”.  However what happens for each of these characters next will remain challenging and some will carry forward a deeper sense of loss than they possessed at the beginning of the story.

Guskin Give Us a Mystery and Makes Us Think

The Forgetting Time by Sharon Guskin

Published 2016

Read Jan 7, 2016

Sharon Guskin became acquainted with the work of Dr. Ian Stevenson when she was passed a copy of Old Souls by Tom Shroder, a Washinton Post reporter.  Stevenson was a professor at the University of Virginia Medical School for over fifty years. He research considered reincarnation, in particular the possibility that emotions, memories, and physical injuries in the form of birth marks can be transferred from one life to another. Guskin’s first novel uses this concept to explore a number of themes including the powerful bond between mother and child, the devotion of a mother to her child, the impact of the death of a loved one, the sacrifices one is willing to make to pursue research not embraced by colleagues, and the devastation of the loss of brain function from dementia type diseases.

We meet Janie, a single mom, and Noah, her lively four year-old and the product of a one night stand.  Noah has always been a handful for Janie, but has becoming increasingly difficult to handle, refusing to bathe, experiencing terrifying dreams, and asking when he can go home to his mother.  The situation reaches crisis mode when his daycare essentially kicks him out after he tells other student about playing with a gun–a .54-caliper Renegade rifle.  Janie tries a number of doctors and psychiatrists and nearly relents to meditating him to treat a diagnosis of schizophrenia but instead turns to a psychiatrist she finds on the internet that has interests in children who recall details from previous lives.

We meet Dr. Jerome Anderson, a professor of psychiatry, who has chosen a career limiting research pursuit of reincarnation as demonstrated by children who recall past lives.  He’s still in deep mourning for his wife who he lost to cancer the previous year when he gets his own tragic diagnosis–primary progressive aphasia–which will slowly rob him of his language cognition leaving him unable to communicate verbally or through writing.  Funding for his research institute has been cut recently and he’s closed his office. He’s trying to get a book published on his research that is intended for the general public but his editor would like to see another American case.

Thus the needs of Janie and Anderson bring them together to consider and solve the mystery of Noah.

The story is told through three voices—Janie’s, Anderson’s, and Denise, a mother whose son Tommy went missing a number of years ago.  In between the chapter Guskin provides excerpts from Jim B. Tucker’s book  Life Before Life.   In the acknowledgements we learn that Tucker is a real person and the book is a real book.  He was an associate of Dr. Ian Stevenson at is still at the University of Virginia Medical School.

On the surface this is a psychological mystery.  It does keep you turning the pages.  In addition, however, as you read you begin to pause and consider a not only the themes noted above but as well as the concepts of mortality, how we spend our lives, and what happens before and after we are alive.

Kent Haruf—Introduction

I’ve seen Plainsong in countless book stores since it was published in 1999 and came close to being enticed to read it based on the title, book cover, and cover blurbs.  I only recently read it after a comment from a respected colleague and friend praised Benedition, noting it as the third in a trilogy starting with Plainsong.  Based on this recommendation I undertook reading the trilogy and, being so moved by the author’s style and content, promptly moved on to the first and second books he wrote.  While looking for more, I encountered the sad news that Kent Haruf died at age 71 in 2014 and that a final novel, Our Souls at Night, was written while he was dying, and published in 2015.

I offer four articles on this body of work, all written after reading his entire fiction repertoire in the following order:

Book Published Reading Completed
Plainsong 1999 Sept 5, 2016
Eventide 2004 Sept 10, 2016
Benediction 2013 Sept 14, 2016
Where You Once Belonged 1990 Sept 15, 2016
The Tie That Binds 1984 Sept 27, 2016
Our Souls at Night 2015 Oct 5, 2016


Observations on Kent Haruf’s Trilogy (?)

Plainsong,  published 1999; Eventide, published 2004; Benediction, published 2013 by Kent Haruf

Kent Haruf had published novels twice before (The Tie That Binds in 1984 and Where You Once Belonged in 1990).  He even won the Whiting Award in 1986 for The Tie That Binds.  (1)  But it was Plainsong, published in 1999 when he was 56, that was his “break out” work, reaching best seller status, widespread acclaim from reviewers and readers, and a National Book Award nomination.  The successes of this book enabled him to write full time.   To do so, he and his second wife, Cathy, moved to a Colorado community about 60 miles from where they met in high school.  She became a hospice volunteer during this period.   Eventide eventually followed in 2004 and finally Benediction in 2013.

All five of Haruf’s books are set in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado, a few hours’ drive from Denver.  Apparently others as well as I see his descriptions of the landscape, the town, and the details of the toil of farming and ranching as almost as an additional character to the novels.  This aspect of the novels, as well as his strong storytelling and sparse yet sufficient character development, is a strong draw for us to seek out his other writings.

Each of these books tells the intertwining stories of a set of characters.   However, the set of characters changes in each book although the McPheron brothers are either central characters (Plainsong and Eventide) or are mentioned (Benediction).

Plainsong has several sets of characters:  Tom Guthrie, a principled high school teacher whose wife withdraws from the family; his sons Ike and Bobby; Victoria Roubideaux, a pregnant high school girl thrown out of her house by her mother; Harold and Raymond McPherons, bachelor brother famers who take in Victoria at the urging of Maggie Smith, a high school teacher who eventually becomes romantically involved with Tom Guthrie.

Eventide feels somewhat like a sequel to Plainsong in that we do follow the story of the McPheron brothers and Victoria as they experience the pain and joy of a young person leaving for the next phase of their life.  The other character sets are new:  a social worker and the dysfunctional family she’s monitoring; a lonely young boy who takes care of his grandfather and provides some support to a neighbor, a young mother who has been abandoned by her husband. Continue reading “Observations on Kent Haruf’s Trilogy (?)”

A Difficult Story

Where You Once Belonged by Kent Haruf

Published 1990

In his second novel, Where You Once Belonged, Kent Haruf continues an approach from his first novel, A Tie That Binds.  Specifically we start our reading with a third party narrator who turns the story over to a first-person narrator, Pat Arbuckle,  who tells us the story of the focal character, in this case, Jack Burdett, the best football player Holt, Colorado had ever seen,  and how the narrator’s story intertwines with that of the focal character with increasing intimacy.

In The Tie That Binds, a violent accident is the primary fault line that amplifies a difficult family situation and the abusive nature of a primary character and defines the life course for the focal character.  In Where You Once Belonged, the arrogance, thoughtlessness, and greed of a primary character, rather than a terrible, perhaps preventable, but nonetheless terrific accident, results in tragic outcomes for multiple characters that cared for and or deeply trusted him.   Thus this book takes us towards some themes that Haruf starts in The Tie That Binds and extends in the Plainsong “Triology”—-1) human beings are capable of causing great harm to others and that capability is regularly exhibited, not one that only occasionally arises; 2) human beings can persevere and even thrive in the face of human caused obstacles and can do so with grace, courage, and humility.

I synthesize from several reviews that this book was written before Haruf took up the “write blind” approach used in Plainsong and later books—-typing the first draft on a manual typewriter while wearing a wool cap over his eyes.  Unlike books written blind, Haruf does use standard punctuation in this book, but the engaging sentences were already apparent and thus not fully relliant on punctuation style.

“It [Wanda Jo’s reaction to hearing her long-time boyfriend, Jack Burdett, had married someone else] began immediately.  For the rest of that morning she sat in the telephone office rest room, staring at the tiled floor, wiping her nose on cheap toilet paper, crying quietly, her recently curled strawberry blonde hair fallen forward about her abashed and stricken face and her slim white neck bowed and exposed as if she were waiting for some final blow of some Holt County inquisitor’s ax.  All of that-that dreadful individual remorse and despair and submission-while the fan overhead went on making its maddening little noise and while the other women out in the front office continued to talk about her and to send a representative from among themselves every fifteen minutes or so to check on her.  She stayed in the rest room all that morning.  Then at noon one of the women drove her home.”

The ending is difficult–no happy endings here.   Jack Burdett created a wound in the town that hadn’t healed completely, only scabbed over.  He returned to pick that scab off and ended up ripping it off with ferocity.  Despite this, life will continue for the characters.  All will move forward somehow and at least some with remnants of positive thoughts.  The narrator, Pat Arbuckle, leaves us with  “I want to believe she is all right too…..I want to believe that much and I hope for more.”

Ties That Can’t be Broken

The Tie That Binds by Kent Haruf

Published 1984

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.

Kent Haruf Leaves Us a Remarkable Book

All Souls at Night  by Kent Haruf

Published 2015

Kent Haruf was dying of lung disease but decided he had an idea for a book—a book that told some of the story about him and his wife Cathy.  Fortunately he did not take the usual 6 years to write the book, and in a mere 45 days got the book down on paper using his writing method—-blindfolded with a wool cap and typing on a manual typewriter, dealing (in his own way) with punctuation later.  He and Cathy worked as vigorously as possible, given his condition, to get it ready before he passed; Cathy had to give it the final read to prepare it for publication.

Again the setting is Holt, Colorado, with which long-time readers have some background.  But the most important setting is the bed of Addie, a 70ish widow, who invites Louis, a 70ish widower, to sleep with her to make the nights possible, and the relationship that develops.  Although the town assumes their relationship is sexual, the intent of the invitation is not sexual at all but rather to enable two people to speak together in the dark of night and make it possible to sleep at night again, absent their current individual loneliness.  We learn, at the same time as they learn, about each of their lives.  We learn of the difficulties each marriage encountered and the impact of them.  Their relationship is both complicated and enhanced when Addie’s grandson, Jamie, comes to stay with her over the summer while Addie’s son, Gene, tries to deal with his own marital issues.  Addie and Louis help Jamie and he helps them.

Addie’s request to Louis is both simple and extraordinary.  She knows what she wants and needs and is clear about what she’s offering and what she’s not.  She’s prepared to be rebuffed and is grateful she’s not.  I envy her clarity of purpose and her bravery.  I think I’m not alone in feeling some small jealously that Addie and Louis are able to build a deep and meaningful relationship at all, much less in the face of town gossip and their children’s reactions.  They must and do identify and break down barriers they have each evolved regarding rules of decorum.  As they need to “take the plunge” early, I anticipate their ability to do this may be causal, vs coincidental, to their ability to share deeply and freely their personal flaws as evidenced by specific events in their lives.  I recall a line from The Tie That Binds that summarizes them well:  “…things 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 hear them and they would be true then.” (Note–italics new for this article).

This is a very interesting read.  It’s highly engaging, sparse yet full, straight-ahead and unflinching, all of which are descriptors of its characters as well.  The first sentence exemplifies several of these attributes and starts “And then there was the day when Addie Moore made a call on Louis Waters”. Haruf avoids a structure he used in his previous three novels, which was the telling of multiple parallel stories of somewhat connected but mainly not connected characters.  We do learn about characters of importance to the main characters, but only because their inclusion is essential to the overall plot.  Having a single storyline is more than sufficient for a Haruf novel.  His first two novels, A Tie That Binds and Where You Once Belonged had a primary plot line but the stories were told primarily through an involved narrator who is part of the story.  The “triology” had multiple story lines with somewhat connected characters.   In this novel, the focus is fully on Addie and Louis with their dialog (punctuated) driving the story, supplemented by some information provided by a third person omniscient narrator, primarily to set the scene or fill in an overview of what happened between character dialogs.  It’s possible Haruf used this approach as he knew the time available to write the book was very short.  Or perhaps he felt so strongly about the story of these two people that he didn’t want it interrupted by the presence of another storyline.  Or both and more, but regardless, the result is remarkable.

The story does not end with the “happy ever after marriage” we as readers might hope for them.   But the ending is consistent with the characters we come to know and for whom we care.  We are well satisfied, if not fully delighted with the conclusion.

Cathy Haruf revealed to the Wall Street Journal that she and Kent held hands and talked into the night, including the night of his passing.    Jenifer Maloney’s WSJ article from May 14, 2015 tells us more about Kent and Cathy Haruf and is not to be missed (1)

Netflix has announced that they will make a Netflix Original Movie based on this book, starring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford.  I respect both actors for the range of work they’ve done and especially their commitment to using older adult roles to teach that “older adults” can and do fully enjoy their “second (or third) act”.   I anticipate this movie will help them also teach that self-realization and resulting wisdom really can continue through your life if one allows it.  I also anticipate it will be tastefully done and respectful of the extraordinary work on which the movie will be based.