Reading Group Center

Revisit the High Plains of Colorado with Kent Haruf’s Benediction

In his latest book Benediction, Kent Haruf returns to the small fictional town of Holt, Colorado, to tell the story of the Lewis family as they come to terms with their ailing patriarch’s demise. True to form, Haruf has written the novel in his signature naturalistic style, painting the lives of Holt’s residents who make the best out of “the precious ordinary”.  Kent took a moment to answer a few questions for The Reading Group Center about how Benediction ties to his other novels, the timelessness of its setting, and how when it comes to each novel, it’s the characters who dictate where the story goes.

Like Plainsong and Eventide, Benediction is set in the High Plains in fictional Holt, Colorado. What initially inspired you to create a fictional town and when you first created Holt did you know it was a place you’d always want to come back to?

I first used the town and county of Holt in a chapter of a novel I began in 1973 when I was a student at the Iowa Writers Workshop. Gratefully, that novel was never published, but the imaginary place stayed with me—prompted by the towns where I’d grown up and the landscape I knew best—and I’ve set all my stories and novels there, on the High Plains of northeastern Colorado. I feel as though Holt has become a universal town—an Every Town, an Any Town—with ancient, fundamental problems: what happens to people in Holt happens to people everywhere and always has. It suits my purposes to stay in Holt: I’ve already invented the details of the place—the Main Street, the highway which runs through it, the railroad tracks and the grain elevator, the water towers, the false fronts of the businesses, the flat open treeless country surrounding the town, the fencelines, the barrow ditches, the gravel section roads, the soap weed and sagebrush in the pastures, the irrigated corn and the dryland wheat, the blue yardlights scattered across the land at night, the loneliness and isolation, the tension between openness and secretiveness. I feel as if I can imagine anyone for that place, and with them, their dogs, bicycles, pickups, cars, dreams, and losses.

Your writing has been compared to Hemmingway’s early work in that there is, to quote the Minneapolis Star Tribune, a very “determined realism.” Additionally, you appear to go to great lengths to use very direct, simple language to such a degree that the writing takes a backseat to the characters and events unfolding. The opening scene of Benediction is all the more powerful because of this; there isn’t a lengthy build up or any skirting the issue at hand, just Dad Lewis telling the doctor to “Go on ahead” and “say it.” Is this a fair assessment?

It’s become very important to me write as simply, clearly, directly, cleanly as possible. If I had the kind of lyrical gift that someone like James Agee has, perhaps I’d write differently; but I don’t. I want to think that if I use language very carefully, trying to be certain that each word and each sentence is exactly the right one for what it needs to do in every part of a book, then this simple language can be fresh and new all over again, as if the words were minted this very day. It puts a great deal of emphasis on each word—to be exactly the right one, and not to be submerged or obscured by a surrounding dazzling barrage of words. I also want to think, if I write this way skillfully enough, then the language won’t seem simplistic or simple-minded, that instead the reader will find it rich enough to want to read on to the end. I don’t want to do anything on the page that will jar the reader out of the narrative dream that I hope has been created. I think I’ve learned something about the simplicity of language from Hemingway and Chekhov.

Building on the last question, because the novel is so focused on the personal and emotional dynamics of the characters, there is a very timeless quality to Benediction. To that end, there doesn’t seem to be anything that grounds the novel in particular year or era. The car is simply a “car,” characters use the phone without any inclination as to what type of phone it may be, and while a computer is mentioned, there is a feeling that this may be an older machine than the latest from Apple. Given that we live in a society that is oversaturated with brands, and pop culture trends that are here today and gone tomorrow, one must assume that this was a very intentional choice on your part. Can you discuss why you took this approach and some of possible difficulties in writing a novel devoid of present references?

Benediction is not dated precisely, but in Rev. Lyle’s sermon about loving one’s enemies there is a reference to bodies falling from the towers, a reference of course to the horror of the World Trade Center, so the book takes place sometime after 9/11. But the book makes almost no allusion to the usual trappings of modern America technology. I’m not interested in computers or cell phones or the latest device from Apple. I’m interested in the ongoing nature of humanity, in its timeless universal condition. What seems important to me is to portray people in their most essential ways, confronted by the most basic of problems: death and dying, the care for the dying, the loss of family, the need for redemption and forgiveness, the terrible memories of regret, loneliness and pain, all these alongside the promise of hope and companionship and moments of joy—what Rev. Lyle calls, in another context, the precious ordinary.

Benediction opens with an epigraph defining “benediction” as “the utterance of a blessing, an invocation of blessedness.” Within a religious context, the Benediction usually comes at the end of a service and so there is a link between a benediction and the end of Dad Lewis’s life. In writing this novel did you first decide upon this theme of benediction or did the characters come to you first?

Characters always come first to me. For me a novel arises out of a deep-seated emotion that I gradually become aware of—but never name or analyze—and over time that emotion becomes attached to characters I invent and imagine. Characters in fiction have to have problems, so each of these people I’ve imagined has something that he or she must try to resolve, or at least contend with. That response to problems forms the storyline and the plot. But my stories are always character-driven, not plot-driven. I write out of instinct and intuition and the long habit of observation, and don’t think about themes at all while I write; it’s only months, sometimes many months, later that I understand what a book is about. For example, the scene in which the women and the girl are swimming in the stock tank seems to suggest a kind of ancient ritual, of women taking a young girl into their adult circle, of a kind of baptism and initiation, of teaching the girl something as basic as how to keep her head above water (and what that suggests more largely), of nakedness in the truth and trust of one another, of the ancient connection with the sun and sky and water. If any of that is true about that scene, I certainly wasn’t thinking about what it meant while I wrote it; instead I was simply trying to write the scene as clearly and vividly as I could, and all my concentration was on getting the sentences and words right.

There is a very interesting contrast between the Lewis family as they prepare for the end of Dad’s life and their new neighbor Alice, a young girl who is at the very start of her own life. In the course of the novel, Alice seems to grow and more fully come to grasp with her own life and mortality in general as she draws from the Lewises’ experiences. What can the reader make of this juxtaposition?

The two principal strands of meaning in Benediction are represented by the death and dying of the old man Dad Lewis and the hope and promise represented by the eight-year-old girl Alice who lives next door to him. Dad Lewis, in his last summer, is resigned to death, but he cannot let go of his deep regret and his need for redemption and forgiveness and benediction. He is troubled, most particularly, by the memory of his estrangement from his son Frank, and he deeply hopes to be forgiven for what he’s done years ago. This desire, this need, haunts his days and nights, and in the end even in the visions in which Frank comes to visit him at his death bed, Dad cannot find forgiveness, and thus he dies in remorse and regret, without the blessing he so deeply wants. In contrast, the girl Alice, despite her own trouble (her mother has died of breast cancer and the girl has come to live with her grandmother), seems undefeated and guardedly innocent. The world is still a place of wonder for her. And because of her youth and hopefulness she attracts a circle of women around her, who find in her a new reason to love and care for someone—women who themselves have each had losses in their lives—and in the course of this summer in this small town recognize in this girl someone who offers a kind of renewal of faith, an opportunity to return to belief in joy. These two strands of meaning, I hope, suggest the inevitable fact of existence: life and death live next door to each other.

Within Benediction there are references to characters featured in both Plainsong and Eventide, and we’ve already discussed the common setting. While these books aren’t a trilogy, would you say that there is a relationship between the three?

I don’t think of these three books as a trilogy. But the first two, Plainsong and Eventide, are clearly related in both character and time. Before I had finished writing Plainsong I found that I knew more about that story and the MacPheron brothers and Victoria Roubideaux than I could get into one book, and what I knew specifically was what would happen to the old brothers; so I began writing the second part of the story almost immediately after finishing the first. I’ve never had that experience before and doubt that I will again. Benediction took about six years for me to write; there were at least two lengthy false starts in the beginning, and it took me a long time to understand who the principal characters were in this new book and what their stories were. While there aren’t particular connections of theme or character in this latest book and the two which precede it (with the exception of brief references to the MacPherons and Victoria and Rose Tyler—a kind of backward glance at what became of them), there does seem, to me, to be similarities in style and tone and treatment. So I suppose that suggests that I had something in mind that was common to all of them. But I leave the discussion of that to others. I have said too much about these books already. A writer’s work is to present a story and then to get out of the way and leave the interpretation and evaluation to readers. Now I want to write something completely unrelated to what I’ve written before.