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.
Benediction also takes place in Holt, but has no other real connection to the previous two save a mention of the McPheron farm and having a single word title that perhaps conveniently suggests “triology”. It does follow the approach of telling several intertwined stories: Dad Lewis, a hardware store owner who is dying from cancer; his wife, Mary; his daughter, Lorraine, in from Denver to help her mother with Dad; a neighbor who takes in her granddaughter, Alice, when her mother dies; a middle-aged woman who returns from Denver to live with her mother following the breakup of a long-term affair with a married man; and a minister and his family who are fairly newly assigned to Holt following unstated problems elsewhere.
Plainsong and Eventide bluntly describe disturbing events of abuse against one or more persons by another human being including sexual coercion, child abuse, and bullying. These are really difficult to read, not because they are gratuitously graphic but because Haruf quietly conveys their regular presence in the lives of many people, the probability for long-lasting, negative impact to the victims, and the careless nature of the perpetrators. In Benediction, Haruf changes approach. He doesn’t make us witness to any such disturbing event, but still causes us to suffer with the characters as they feel the pain resulting from estrangement of a son from the family and one that won’t resolve before the father’s death, which amplifies the pain and loss. He is also superb in registering the pain and consequences that accompanies principled behavior—Guthrie’s refusal to ignore the wretched behavior of a basketball star (Plainsong); the minister’s anti-war sediments even though it will lose him yet another ministry job (Benediction).
The parallel stories allow us to see the broader Holt community and provide vehicles for the conflicts noted above. In Plainsong, the stories seem to flow fairly effortlessly—the characters having or developing natural connections. In Eventide and Benediction, the connections are less vital or even absent and so at times can feel somewhat forced. Although the three additional story lines in Benediction provide some interest and suggest an enviable community between these people, the stories aren’t essential to the main story which brilliantly depicts how the Lewis family deals with Dad’s terminal cancer and what parts of the family can and can’t come together as Dad journeys away from life. I anticipate that Haruf’s wife experiences as a part-time hospice volunteer helped him provide such a moving and genuine view of this situation.