Benediction is the third book in Kent Haruf’s Plainsong trilogy, a series of novels set in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado. I read the first two (Plainsong and Eventide) a year or so ago, but they have been widely reviewed elsewhere. Each novel can be read independently but what unites them is a strong sense of place and community.
The central character in Benediction is Dad Lewis, owner of the local hardware store for more than fifty years. An honest, reliable, plain-speaking man, Dad is old and dying of cancer. As close friends and workmates come to say their farewells, Dad’s loving wife, Mary, and daughter, Lorraine, try to ease the pain of his final weeks at home.
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. (pg. 5)
As Dad’s story opens up, we learn a little more about his earlier years. Dad is a proud, upstanding man with traditional values; he is somewhat stubborn too, and like most of us he has regrets in life. As he faces his own mortality, it becomes increasingly clear that Dad is haunted by the ghosts of his past. Dad and Mary’s estranged son, Frank, casts the darkest shadow over their lives. Reflections on the years gone by reveal Frank’s homosexuality, a discovery that proves too difficult for Dad to come to terms with at the time. By contrast, Mary appears more willing to accept the situation in the slender hope of maintaining a relationship with her son. There are times when Dad and Mary visit Frank in Denver once he leaves home as a teenager, but the atmosphere is strained to say the least. The following conversation between Mary and Dad gives a feel for the lie of the land – they have just left Frank’s apartment, and the first voice we hear is Mary’s.
I am upset. I’m disappointed that we don’t have anything to do with him. Anything more than this. Than what happened back there. You give me money to give him and I put it in an envelope for Christmas and he hasn’t even thought to have anything to give us in return. We see him working at the café and we follow him up to his dirty little apartment room in a dirty old house and we drink tea and we talk for five minutes, then you go outside to warm up the car and that’s it.
What did you expect?
I wanted it to be nice. I told you that. Something present there between us and our son. We’re going to lose him, she said. Don’t you know that?
We lost him a long time ago.
You lost him. I didn’t. (pgs. 153-4)
Mary still lives in hope of reconciliation with her son especially as the end draws near for Dad.
Alongside Dad and Mary’s narrative, Haruf touches on the lives of other people connected to this couple. We meet Alice, an eight-year-old girl who has recently come to live with her grandmother in the house next door to Dad and Mary’s. Feeling lost and a little bewildered following the death of her mother from breast cancer, Alice welcomes the friendship of Lorraine (Dad and Mary’s daughter). The young girl is also befriended by kindly mother and daughter, Willa and Alene Johnson, friends of the Lewis family. In a touching scene from the book, the women take Alice on a picnic, and they all bathe together in a nearby stock tank. Haruf is especially good when it comes to portraying the lives of these women, their values and principles, their hopes and disappointments.
There is a final strand to the story, that of the town preacher, Lyle, and his family who have recently moved to Holt following a transfer from Denver. Lyle’s character is perhaps more lightly sketched and less convincing than others in the novel. That said, Lyle is clearly struggling to reconcile his own ideals with the prejudices he encounters amongst some of Holt’s more conservative residents.
Benediction is a novel that captures the pain and loss experienced by people in their everyday lives, a quiet, contemplative story of ordinary, plain-speaking folk. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes Haruf’s books so special, but he brings a profound sense of compassion and humanity to everything he writes. Haruf’s prose is spare and unshowy, but there is a beauty in its simplicity. His characters feel authentic, their values and failings are clearly portrayed through their thoughts and actions. Small acts of kindness and affection speak volumes.
This is a melancholy, elegiac novel, almost unbearably moving at times especially as Dad’s life draws to a close. Haruf doesn’t hold back on the mental and physical suffering associated with a slow death, but this is balanced by the deep sense of empathy shown by Dad’s family and friends.
Plainsong remains my favourite of the trilogy, but Benediction is a fitting end to the series. I’ll finish with one last quote, a passage from Dad’s final weeks.
They helped him move out to the front porch and stood watching the rain falling on the grass and out in the graveled street. There were already puddles in the low places and the silver poplar trees were dark, streaming with water. Lorraine held her hand out to the rain and patted her face and then cupped both hands and caught the overflow from the gutters and held her hands up to Dad’s face. He stood leaning on his cane, his face dripping. They watched him, he looked straight out across the lawn past the wrought iron fence, past the wet street to the lot beyond, thinking about something.
Doesn’t it smell good, Mary said.
Yeah, he said softly. His eyes were wet, but they couldn’t say if that was from tears or rainwater. (pg. 81)
Benediction is published in the UK by Picador. Source: I won this book in a giveaway – my thanks to Kim at Reading Matters and Picador.