Reader’s Journal: Benediction by Kent Haruf

Benediction CoverTruth: I loved Benediction. Truth: I was predisposed to love it because I loved Plainsong and Eventide. If you want a completely objective review (as if such a thing exists), you’ll have to go elsewhere to find it.

In Benediction, Haruf returns to the fictional town of Holt, Colorado. Some time has passed since the stories contained in Plainsong and Evensong. We meet a new cast of characters, including Dad Lewis, who is at the end of his life (not a spoiler—the reader knows this from the very first page of the book). Daughter Lorraine has returned home to help her mother Mary care for Dad Lewis. Next door, neighbor Berta May’s eight-year-old granddaughter Alice has come to live with her grandmother after her mother’s death from breast cancer. This group is joined by Willa and Alene Johnson, a mother and daughter who are longtime residents of Holt, and the Reverend Lyle and his wife and son, who are new to Holt and its Community Church.

Bit by bit, Haruf tells their stories, parceling them out slowly. Lorraine, who is in her 50s, has a boyfriend her parents don’t approve of. Alene was a schoolteacher in another town for many years, even after she caused a scandal by falling in love with the wrong man. Willa never really got over her husband’s death. Reverend Lyle’s son John Wesley learns a hard lesson about what he believes is his first love. Reverend Lyle, chased out of Denver because he voiced support for gay rights, continues to confront how to align his personal beliefs about what it means to speak the gospel when the gospel is not what the congregation really wants to hear. And Dad Lewis confronts all the ghosts of his past, including his son Frank, whose whereabouts are unknown after he left home decades before because he had a lifestyle his father could not tolerate.

To be honest, Benediction is weighted with sadness. It’s stark and pure like a clear cold sky that stings your eyes with tears. I can see where some people might only see a town that’s restrictive and restricted, a small-minded bunch of people whose sadness and loss do not count for much in a world filled with technology and war and terror and poverty, who might even deserve what they get for being so willingly closed off from everything by choosing to live out there on the eastern prairie of Colorado. These are fly-over people. But even fly-over people have their moments of doubt, of existential angst, of navel-gazing and terrifying realizations about their place in the world, and that’s what Haruf illustrates so well.

Near the very end of his life, Dad Lewis is visited by Frank–or rather, a vision he believes is Frank. This Frank is angry and accusatory, and they have the following exchange about why Dad Lewis left his own family in Kansas when he was young:

It was because he wanted to beat me again, Dad said. I wasn’t going to have it. I was fifteen and I run away. I never went home after that.

History repeats, Frank said.

What?

I’m saying I know that story. A version of it, anyway.

Maybe so, said Dad. He looked at Frank for a while. Goddamn it, I didn’t even know how to cut my meat or eat my potatoes right, I chased my peas around the plate with a knife. I come out of that kind of life, out of their house, knowing nothing but hard work and sweat and paying heed and dodging cow shit and taking orders. I cut my meat about like it was a piece of stove wood.

None of that matters, Frank said.

No. That don’t matter, Dad said. but it matters what it stands for. He talks about luck. Your mom was my luck. I was lucky in your mom.

I know, Dad.

Your mom helped me change.

Well, I don’t like to tell you, but you’re not all that sophisticated yet, Dad. If that’s what you’re talking about.

What?

Never mind. that doesn’t matter either.

Wait now. I know what you’re talking about. I know what you mean. But you don’t know where I come from. I wanted more. I wanted out of that. I wanted to work inside someplace. Talk to people. Live in a town. Make a place for myself on Main Street. Own a store, sell things to people, provide what they needed. I worked hard, like I told him. It wasn’t just luck. Your mom was my luck. I know that but I worked hard too.

This conversation for me was the heart of the whole book. Hollywood tells us that the big dream for the boy in the small town is to go to the big city, make it big as a king of industry or somehow otherwise find fame and riches. The city is truly an urban center, and the boy either guiltily forsakes his rural life or eventually decides to return to his small town as a benevolent hero. For many people, success is not life in the big city, but life in a bigger town–or any town at all. To work indoors, in a hardware store or a grocery. (If you’re a Haruf fan or want a better understanding of how and where these people live, I suggest you watch “The Farmer’s Wife,” a wonderful PBS FRONTLINE special series about a family struggling with modern farm life on the Nebraska plains. It was the first time I heard someone who came from a town of 400 people as a “city girl.”)

The excerpt is about Dad Lewis’s particular story, and it shows how far he believes he has come from where he started, about how he achieved his dream, but the book as a whole deals with much the same theme even with the other characters. Right now, the United States is divided in so many ways: along religious and political lines, rural and urban, education and technology. It is easy to forget how big dreams can be, how what are a few small steps to one person are a huge leap for someone else. The particulars of so many lives are lost because the Dad Lewises of the world have no control over the narrative.

I’ve left out so much—Reverend Lyle’s struggles with his faith, with his desire to say what needs to be heard rather than what people want to hear, even his own wife and son. The satisfaction that the child Alice brings to Alene and Lorraine in different ways by allowing them to do small, care-taking things for her. Haruf writes clean, simple prose, lines as clean as a clear sky against the flat horizon. His characters are complex in their simplicity. Even though Benediction is considered to be the third of a trilogy of sorts, you don’t need to read the other two to understand and enjoy this. But I highly recommend you read all three.

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