Benediction by Kent Haruf

And finally, the third book in the Plainsong trilogy, Kent Haruf’s penultimate of his writing career, Benediction.

A man named Dad Lewis, owner of the local hardware store in Holt,  nears the end of his life. The stress of caring for him put his wife in hospital, so their daughter Lorraine returns home to help.

Next door Berta-May lives with her grand-daughter Alice whose mother died some years earlier. Lorraine takes an interest in Alice as do the Johnson’s, Willa and her 60 year-old unmarried daughter Alene.

The Reverend Lyle visits, new to Holt, sent from Denver after what happened there. His wife and son are having difficulty getting used to the place.

I doubt if he’s accustomed to small towns.
He better start getting accustomed to them, Dad said.
The women turned and looked at him. They’d thought he was asleep. Hi head was turned toward the window and he wasn’t looking at them when he talked.
Nothing goes on without people noticing, he said.

Haruf plants small seeds of intrigue in his books, one line that isn’t explained further, that suggests something that occurred in the past, we know eventually it will come out, just not yet. For all his plain talking and minimalist use of literary devices, he successfully hooks the reader early on.

He had some trouble in Denver, I heard. I believe that’s why he was sent here.

A young couple come to see him, all dressed up, asking if he could marry them, immediately. First they have a little talk about what love means to them, the girl gives her version, then the boy. The reverend is satisfied they understand and adds his thoughts to theirs.

Love is the most important part of life isn’t it. If you have love, you can live in this world in a true way and if you love each other you can see past everything and accept what you don’t understand and forgive what you don’t know or don’t like. Love is all. Love is patient and boundless and right-hearted and long-suffering.

Moved by the day he shares a little of his delight with his wife and teenage son that evening at dinner. Later, before bed, the boy comes to his mother. Others in the community will also be upset by the things the Reverend has to say, unable to understand his intent.

Why does he have to talk like that? It makes me sick.
Don’t talk about him that way.
He’s not preaching here. At the table with us. But he still sounds like he’s preaching or pointing up some moral.
He means well, you know that. He was trying to tell us about something that was important to him.
He’s full of shit Mom.
Don’t talk like that. It’s not true.
It is. I can’t stand it when he talks like that.

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There are the humorous dialogues I’ve come to expect, the laugh out loud moments, that catch you unawares and you just want to reread them because they’re so good.  It’s a novel that observes ageing from different angles, through different minds.

Willa asks her daughter if she’s not too lonely, she says she tries not to think about it and her mother tells her, oh but you will dear, but it’ll get better.

How will I get better?
It’s gets better. Everything gets better.
How?

And then you get your laugh out moment, which I won’t spoil by telling you what she says! When the women characters Willa, Alene, Lorraine and Alice come together, they’re bridging the deficit each of them has in their lives, opening up and allowing their personal stories to move forward.

Dad Lewis comes to the realisation that in order to let ago, he needs to make amends for some things in his life he realises he regrets. Where he is unable to, he makes certain spontaneous redemptive acts, paying it forward.

It wasn’t until I read this third book that I began to wonder about the titles and I realised I didn’t even know what plainsong meant. The titles seem symbolic despite the fact that Haruf avoids literary devices in his narrative. Haruf said of his prose in an interview, it includes “almost no metaphors or figurative language” because he was “trying to get at the thing itself without comparing it with something else.”

I learn that plainsong refers to ‘words that are sung, without any instrumental accompaniment’ which describes his style, a continuous melodic narrative, a work of austere realism, free of literary ornamentation.

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Eventide refers to evening, or the end of the day, the period of decreasing daylight from late afternoon until nightfall, the continuation of the story that started with Plainsong. These books are more connected to each other than Benediction, like the day and night of one story, whereas the third book could be standalone, with only the briefest mentions of past characters if at all.

Benediction is the double act, to give a blessing and ask for divine guidance, to both be thankful and to ask for guidance in the days to come. The book’s epigraph says ‘the utterance of a blessing, an invocation of blessedness’. Appropriate to the living and to the dying.

Haruf’s preferred aesthetic strategy is simply to present his characters from the outside, as we follow what they do, what they say, and how they interact with others. To an extent, the inner lives of these characters remain something of a mystery to us, but this also seems to be an intentional effect — we must infer motive from a character’s actions and at times allow emotion to remain implicit. Daniel Green, Full-Stop

The real draw to his stories then are the characters and their situations, their understated way of being with each other, the little that is said, the importance that something must be said, the situations that force that to occur.

Everyone has their underlying wounds, but rather than excavate their thoughts, Haruf creates examples of how people move on (literally) from their situations, often in small ways, to heal and find faith in humanity again. And suffer again, in that never-ending cycle of growth.

Overall, an excellent and thought provoking trilogy to have read during this quite time of confinement.

Further Reading

My review of Book 1 Plainsong

My Review of Book 2 Eventide