Dip into Kent Haruf's Benediction, then look at a photo of eastern Colorado's high plains, and you think, "Of course." Of course, from this landscape of heat and light and ice and vistas comes this plain and powerful book. All straight lines and spare prose, Benediction takes place during a single summer, an arc of time in which nothing much happens but everything changes.
We enter the tiny town of Holt, Colorado (or re-enter, if you've read any of Haruf's previous four novels) just as Dad Lewis, the elderly owner of the local hardware store, learns he's dying of cancer. A few months, the doctor figures. Nothing anyone can do. So Dad and his wife, Mary, head home, drive "out from Denver away from the mountains, back onto the high plains: sagebrush and soapweed and blue grama and buffalo grass in the pastures, wheat and corn in the planted fields."
Bit by bit, Dad's family and friends gather. Dad's adult daughter, Lorraine, arrives from the city. Her presence, while welcome, drives home the decades-long absence of her brother, Frank, who left home after high school and never came back. Next door, Berta May has just taken in her orphaned eight-year-old granddaughter, Alice. Across town, a new preacher, sent to Holt from a city parish for a fresh start, is about to start making the same old mistakes.
There's setup enough for a soap opera's worth of plots, but that's not Haruf's way. Instead we're offered life as a patchwork of trial and error, mistakes and serendipity. And, for a lucky few, the chance to make amends. A shopping trip to buy Alice some new summer clothes packs as much of a punch as Mary's drive to Denver in a last attempt to find Frank. When, on a scorching summer afternoon, the women move from the heat of the house to a backyard picnic, it's a series of quiet scenes in which a universe unfolds.
They brought out glasses and silverware and salt and pepper shakers and a dish of pickle relish and pink cloth napkins and iced tea in a glass pitcher?. Over them lay the shade of the tree, dappling and swaying when there was a breeze at this noon hour. Later, goaded by the heat, the women go swimming in a stock tank. The oldest skinny-dips for the first time in her life. Alice, the youngest, learns how to float, "half-submerged, her blue eyes open to the blue sky."
There's a mythic quality to the landscape of Holt, which is fitting since Haruf, who lives and writes in Murphysboro, Illinois, left Colorado more than thirty-five years ago. In Benediction, as in his previous four novelsThe Tie That Binds, Where You Once Belonged, Plainsong, and Eventideit's the restraint of Haruf's storytelling that provides its power, and its grace.
Veronique de Turenne is a Los Angeles–based journalist, essayist, and playwright. Her literary criticism appears on NPR and in major American newspapers. One of the highlights of her career was interviewing Vin Scully in his broadcast booth at Dodger Stadium, then receiving a handwritten thank-you note from him a few days later.
Reviewer: Veronique de Turenne
Read an Excerpt
When the test came back the nurse called them into the examination room and when the doctor entered the room he just looked at them and asked them to sit down. They could tell by the look on his face where matters stood.
Go on ahead, Dad Lewis said, say it.
I’m afraid I don’t have very good news for you, the doctor said.
When they went back downstairs to the parking lot it was late in the afternoon.
You drive, Dad said. I don’t want to.
Are you feeling so bad, honey?
No. I don’t feel that much worse. I just want to look out at this country. I won’t be coming out here again.
I don’t mind driving for you, she said. And we can come this way again anytime if you want to.
They drove out from Denver away from the mountains, back onto the high plains: sagebrush and soapweed and blue grama and buffalo grass in the pastures, wheat and corn in the planted fields. On both sides of the highway were the gravel county roads going out away under the pure blue sky, all the roads straight as the lines ruled in a book, with only a few small isolated towns spread across the flat open country.
It was sundown when they got home. By then the air was starting to cool off. She parked the car in front of their house at the west edge of Holt on the gravel street and Dad got out and stood looking for a while. The old white house built in 1904, the first on the street which wasn’t even much of a street then, and still only three or four houses there yet when he bought it in 1948, the year he and Mary were married. He was twenty-two, working at the hardware store on Main Street, then the old lame man who owned it made up his mind to move away to live with his daughter and he offered Dad the option of purchasing it, and he was a known man in town by then, the bankers knew him, and gave him the loan without question. So he was the proprietor of the local hardware store.
It was a frame house sided with clapboard, two-story with a red shingled roof, with an old-fashioned black wrought iron fence around it and an iron gate with spears and hard loops at the top. Out back was an old red barn and a pole corral grown over with tall weeds, and beyond that there was nothing but the open country.
He went inside to the downstairs bedroom to put on old pants and a sweater and came back out and sat down in one of the porch chairs.
She came out to find him. Do you want supper now? I could make you a sandwich.
No. I don’t want anything. Maybe if you could bring me a beer.
You don’t want anything to eat?
You go on ahead without me.
Do you want a glass?
She went inside and returned with the cold bottle.
Thank you, he said.
She went back in. He drank from the bottle and sat looking out at the quiet empty street in the summer evening. The neighbor Berta May’s yellow house next door and the other houses beyond it, running up to the highway, and the vacant lot directly across the street, and the railroad tracks three blocks in the other direction, all of that part of town still empty and undeveloped between his property and the tracks. In the trees in front of the house the leaves were blowing a little.
She brought a tray of crackers and cheese and an apple cut up in quarters and a glass of iced tea. Would you like any of this? She held out the tray to him. He took a piece of apple and she sat down beside him in the other porch chair.
Well. That’s it, he said. That’s the deal now. Isn’t it.
He might be wrong. They’re wrong sometimes, she said. They can’t be so sure.
I don’t want to let myself think that way. I can feel it in me that they’re right. I don’t have much time left.
Oh I don’t want to believe that.
Yeah. But I’m pretty sure -that’s how it’s going to be.
I don’t want you to go yet, she said. She reached across and took his hand. I don’t. There were tears in her eyes. I’m not ready.
I know. . . . We better call Lorraine pretty soon, he said.
I’ll call her.
Tell her she doesn’t have to come home yet. Give her some time.
He looked at the beer bottle and held it in front of him and took a small drink.
I might get me some kind of better grade of beer before I go. A guy I was talking to said something about Belgian beer. Maybe I’ll try some of that. If I can get it around here.
He sat and drank the beer and held his wife’s hand sitting out on the front porch. So the truth was he was dying. That’s what they were saying. He would be dead before the end of summer. By the beginning of September the dirt would be piled over what was left of him out at the cemetery three miles east of town. Someone would cut his name into the face of a tombstone and it would be as if he never was.