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Novel set in Colorado (“a powerful read”)

26th February 2016

Benediction by Kent Haruf, novel set in Colorado.

Holt, Colorado, is a very ordinary little town invented by Haruf for the setting of his three novels Plainsong, Eventide and Benediction. It’s the kind of sleepy, unattractive little place that we have all read about in literature and seen portrayed in endless films; the kind of place, in real life, you just couldn’t wait to get away from. And yet, this is what makes Haruf’s work so exceptional. He has the ability to make the ordinary into something completely extraordinary and creates a fictional place that you just can’t wait to get back to.


Benediction tells the story of one long, hot summer in Holt, when Dad Lewis returns from hospital with terminal cancer. He has come home to die which he duly does at the end of the novel. That’s it. That’s the story and yet I don’t think I’ve read anything recently that kept me so avidly turning the pages. Alongside the very sad story of Dad’s decline there are sub-plots which are completely uplifting, for example Dad’s next door neighbour takes in Alice, her orphaned eight-year-old granddaughter, and the rather shell-shocked child gradually grows in confidence as she is befriended by a group of older women.

Haruf’s characters are uncompromisingly true to life. These are the folk you might expect to meet in typical small town America – conventional and small-minded with a tough outlook born of poverty and grinding hard work. Even the central character, Dad Lewis, upright citizen though he may be, is not likeable. His uncompromising moral standards have caused him to sack an employee who stole money from him, leading ultimately to the man’s suicide and his wife and children facing a life of desperate poverty. He has also alienated his son because he cannot cope with the fact that his offspring is homosexual. And yet, in all Hanuf’s characters, there are such flashes of courage and compassion that you are left feeling optimistic rather than depressed by the state of mankind. Dad Lewis, in penance for his over-hasty judgement, financially supports his ex-employee’s wife and children for years. The same folk who turn their back on Reverend Lyle for preaching that the United States should “turn the other cheek” instead of going to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, turn out en masse to hunt for a missing child. Hanuf makes you care about his characters, despite their flaws and I, for one, want to go back there to find out how life works out for Alice as she grows up and whether Lorraine does take over the hardware store.

Haruf’s style of writing is deceptively simple; he uses no imagery and his characters’ conversation is plain and natural, the ordinariness emphasised by the lack of quotation marks. This simplicity of style serves to make even more memorable certain scenes, such as the women’s baptism-like skinny dipping in the cattle’s stock tank or the terrifying account of the minister’s son attempting to hang himself. These are dramatic scenes, loaded with symbolic significance but it is Hanuf’s accounts of very ordinary events that make his work so powerful. Reverend Lyle goes out wandering the town looking for what he calls “the precious ordinary” in the lives of the townspeople of Holt and, at the end of the novel, the reader is left with a sense of being given an exceptional gift in being allowed access to their unexceptional lives.

Ellen for the TripFiction Team

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  1. User: Barbara Khan

    Posted on: 26/02/2016 at 6:09 pm

    Kent Haruf was a wonderful author. While I have not read Benediction, I did read and enjoy Plainsong & Eventide. Sadly he passed away in 2015, so we will have to satisfy ourselves with the legacy of books he left.