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.