A Shelf Awareness Best Book of the Year
From the beloved and best-selling author of Plainsong and Eventide comes a story of life and death, and the ties that bind, once again set out on the High Plains in Holt, Colorado.
When Dad Lewis is diagnosed with terminal cancer, he and his wife, Mary, must work together to make his final days as comfortable as possible. Their daughter, Lorraine, hastens back from Denver to help look after him; her devotion softens the bitter absence of their estranged son, Frank, but this cannot be willed away and remains a palpable presence for all three of them. Next door, a young girl named Alice moves in with her grandmother and contends with the painful memories that Dad's condition stirs up of her own mother's death. Meanwhile, the town’s newly arrived preacher attempts to mend his strained relationships with his wife and teenaged son, a task that proves all the more challenging when he faces the disdain of his congregation after offering more than they are accustomed to getting on a Sunday morning. And throughout, an elderly widow and her middle-aged daughter do everything they can to ease the pain of their friends and neighbors.
Despite the travails that each of these families faces, together they form bonds strong enough to carry them through the most difficult of times. Bracing, sad and deeply illuminating, Benediction captures the fullness of life by representing every stage of it, including its extinction, as well as the hopes and dreams that sustain us along the way. Here Kent Haruf gives us his most indelible portrait yet of this small town and reveals, with grace and insight, the compassion, the suffering and, above all, the humanity of its inhabitants.
When the test came back the nurse called them into the examination room and when the doctor entered the room he just looked at them and asked them to sit down. They could tell by the look on his face where matters stood.
Go on ahead, Dad Lewis said, say it.
I’m afraid I don’t have very good news for you, the doctor said.
When they went back downstairs to the parking lot it was late in the afternoon.
You drive, Dad said. I don’t want to.
Are you feeling so bad, honey?
No. I don’t feel that much worse. I just want to look out at this country. I won’t be coming out here again.
I don’t mind driving for you, she said. And we can come this way again anytime if you want to.
They drove out from Denver away from the mountains, back onto the high plains: sagebrush and soapweed and blue grama and buffalo grass in the pastures, wheat and corn in the planted fields. On both sides of the highway were the gravel county roads going out away under the pure blue sky, all the roads straight as the lines ruled in a book, with only a few small isolated towns spread across the flat open country.
It was sundown when they got home. By then the air was starting to cool off. She parked the car in front of their house at the west edge of Holt on the gravel street and Dad got out and stood looking for a while. The old white house built in 1904, the first on the street which wasn’t even much of a street then, and still only three or four houses there yet when he bought it in 1948, the year he and Mary were married. He was twenty-two, working at the hardware store on Main Street, then the old lame man who owned it made up his mind to move away to live with his daughter and he offered Dad the option of purchasing it, and he was a known man in town by then, the bankers knew him, and gave him the loan without question. So he was the proprietor of the local hardware store.
It was a frame house sided with clapboard, two-story with a red shingled roof, with an old-fashioned black wrought iron fence around it and an iron gate with spears and hard loops at the top. Out back was an old red barn and a pole corral grown over with tall weeds, and beyond that there was nothing but the open country.
He went inside to the downstairs bedroom to put on old pants and a sweater and came back out and sat down in one of the porch chairs.
She came out to find him. Do you want supper now? I could make you a sandwich.
No. I don’t want anything. Maybe if you could bring me a beer.
You don’t want anything to eat?
You go on ahead without me.
Do you want a glass?
She went inside and returned with the cold bottle.
Thank you, he said.
She went back in. He drank from the bottle and sat looking out at the quiet empty street in the summer evening. The neighbor Berta May’s yellow house next door and the other houses beyond it, running up to the highway, and the vacant lot directly across the street, and the railroad tracks three blocks in the other direction, all of that part of town still empty and undeveloped between his property and the tracks. In the trees in front of the house the leaves were blowing a little.
She brought a tray of crackers and cheese and an apple cut up in quarters and a glass of iced tea. Would you like any of this? She held out the tray to him. He took a piece of apple and she sat down beside him in the other porch chair.
Well. That’s it, he said. That’s the deal now. Isn’t it.
He might be wrong. They’re wrong sometimes, she said. They can’t be so sure.
I don’t want to let myself think that way. I can feel it in me that they’re right. I don’t have much time left.
Oh I don’t want to believe that.
Yeah. But I’m pretty sure -that’s how it’s going to be.
I don’t want you to go yet, she said. She reached across and took his hand. I don’t. There were tears in her eyes. I’m not ready.
I know. . . . We better call Lorraine pretty soon, he said.
I’ll call her.
Tell her she doesn’t have to come home yet. Give her some time.
He looked at the beer bottle and held it in front of him and took a small drink.
I might get me some kind of better grade of beer before I go. A guy I was talking to said something about Belgian beer. Maybe I’ll try some of that. If I can get it around here.
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.
Excerpted from Benediction by Kent Haruf. Copyright © 2013 by Kent Haruf. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
“His finest-tuned tale yet. . . . There is a deep, satisfying music to this book, as Haruf weaves between such a large cast of characters in so small a space. . . . Strangely, wonderfully, the moment of a man's passing can be a blessing in the way it brings people together. Benediction recreates this powerful moment so gracefully it is easy to forget that, like [the town of] Holt, it is a world created by one man.” —John Freeman, The Boston Globe
"A quiet and profound statement about endings, about change and death and endurance, and about the courage it takes to finally let go. . . . What's remarkable is Haruf's ability, once again, to square quotidian events with what it means to be alive and bound in ordinary pleasure with ordinary people [with] a matter-of-fact tone, with spare declarative sentences and plain-speak among the characters that is, in its bare-bones clarity, often heartbreakingly authentic." —Debra Gwartney, The Oregonian
“What Haruf makes of this patch of ground is magic [and] Benediction spreads its blessing over the entire town. Haruf isn’t interested in evil so much as the frailties that defeat us – loneliness, a failure to connect with one another, the lack of courage to change. . . . [He] makes us admire his characters’ ability not only to carry on but also to enjoy simple pleasures.” —Dan Cryer, San Francisco Chronicle
“We’ve waited a long time for an invitation back to Holt, home to Kent Haruf’s novels. . . He may be the most muted master in American fiction [and] Benediction seems designed to catch the sound of those fleeting good moments [with] scenes Hemingway might have written had he survived.” —Ron Charles, Washington Post
"A lovely book, surprisingly rich in character and event without any sense of being crowded. . . . Haruf is a master in summing up the drama that already exists in life, if you just pay attention." —Harper Barnes, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Absorbing [and] evocative. . . . Haruf doesn’t offer us any facile reconciliations. The blessings in Benediction are [not] easily won. For that very reason they are all the more believable and all the more unforgettable.” – Richard Wakefield, The Seattle Times
"Splendid. . . . As the expertly crafted structure of Benediction emerges, it becomes clear that [Haruf's many] characters trace the arc of a life. . . as we join [a good but flawed man] in his deepening appreciation for those around him, while counting down the remaining hours, in his life and our own." —Mike Fischer, Portland Press Herald
“Remarkable. . . . Haruf paints indelible portraits of drifting days that reveal unexpected blessings. . . . We may not always recognize the best moments—maybe because they are often as simple as eating off the good china at a backyard picnic—but he understands their power to make us human.” —Connie Ogle, The Miami Herald
"Itself a blessing. . . spare and unencumbered. . . . Haruf's great skill is in describing the plain ways of people who live in small places [and the war] going on between good and evil that we recognize as part of our nature. This is what makes Benediction a universal story, not a hometown tale." —Michael D. Langan, The Buffalo News
“Quiet, and intimate, and beautiful.” —Lisa McLendon, The Wichita Eagle
“If Hemingway had had more soul, he would've written a book like Benediction.” —Emma Broder, The Chicago Maroon
"Incisive, elegiac, and rhetorically rich. . . his finest expression yet of an aesthetic vision that, in spite of its exacting verisimilitude, achieves a mythic dimension rare in contemporary fiction. . . . Haruf's art is rigorous but transparent. Scene after scene, we appreciate that we are in the hands of a master of complex storytelling disguised as simple observation. . . . Reading [him], I am often reminded of the great Russian realists, who have a similar compressed intensity and who spent much of their writing time examining the lives of ordinary people living in small communities in wide-open spaces." —Kevin Stevens, The Dublin Review of Books
“Benediction suggests there’s no end to the stories Haruf can tell about Holt or to the tough, gorgeous language he can summon in the process.” —Paul Elie, The New York Times Book Review
“Haruf is the master of what one of his characters calls 'the precious ordinary'. . . . With understated language and startling emotional insight, he makes you feel awe at even the most basic of human gestures.” —Ben Goldstein, Esquire
“Grace and restraint are abiding virtues in Haruf's fiction, and they resume their place of privilege in his new work. . . . For readers looking for the rewards of an intimate, meditative story, it is indeed a blessing.” —Karen R. Long, The Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Haruf is maguslike in his gifts. . . to illuminate the inevitable ways in which tributary lives meander toward confluence. . . . Perhaps not since Hemingway has an American author triggered such reader empathy with so little reliance on the subjectivity of his characters. . . . [This] is a modestly wrought wonder from one of our finest living writers.” —Bruce Machart, The Houston Chronicle
“Both sad and surprisingly uplifting in its honest and skillful examination of death, families and friendship.” —Jason Swensen, Deseret News
“As Haruf's precise details accrue, a reader gains perspective: This is the story of a man's life, and the town where he spent it, and the people who try to ease its end. . . . His sentences have the elegance of Hemingway's early work [and his] determined realism, which admits that not all of our past actions or the reasons behind them are knowable, even to ourselves, is one of the book's satisfactions.” —John Reimringer, The Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“Reverberant… From the terroir and populace of his native American West, the author of Plainsong and Eventide again draws a story elegant in its simple telling and remarkable in its authentic capture of universal human emotions.” – Brad Hooper, Booklist
About the Book
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of Benediction, a story of life and death, and the ties that bind, by the best-selling and beloved author of Plainsong and Eventide.
About the Guide
When Dad Lewis is diagnosed with terminal cancer, he and his wife, Mary, must work together to make his final days as comfortable as possible. Their daughter, Lorraine, hastens back from Denver to the high plains town of Holt, Colorado, to help look after him; her devotion softens the absence of their son, Frank, whose estrangement cannot be willed away and remains a bitter fact the three of them must face. Next door, a young girl named Alice moves in with her grandmother and contends with the painful memories of her own mother’s death stirred up by Dad’s condition. Meanwhile, the town’s newly arrived preacher attempts to mend his strained relationships with his wife and teenage son, a task that proves all the more challenging when he faces the disdain of his congregation after offering more than they are accustomed to getting on a Sunday morning. And throughout, an elderly widow and her middle-aged daughter do everything they can to ease the pain of their friends and neighbors.
Despite the travails each of these families face, together they form bonds strong enough to carry them through the most difficult of times. Bracing, sad, and deeply illuminating, Benediction captures the fullness of life by representing every stage of it, including its extinction, as well as the hopes and dreams that sustain us along the way. Here Kent Haruf gives us his most indelible portrait yet of this small town, revealing with grace and insight the compassion, suffering, and humanity of its inhabitants.
About the Author
Kent Haruf’s honors include a Whiting Foundation Writers’ Award, the Mountains and Plains Booksellers Award, the Wallace Stegner Award, and a special citation from the PEN/Hemingway Foundation; he has also been a finalist for the National Book Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the New Yorker Book Award. He lives with his wife, Cathy, in their native Colorado.
1. Two of Haruf’s previous novels set in Holt, Plainsong and Eventide, followed the same groups of characters, but Benediction mentions them only in passing. Have you read those two novels? Do you think reading them would increase your enjoyment of Benediction?
2. The book’s epigraph is a definition of the word “benediction”: “the utterance of a blessing, an invocation of blessedness.” Why is it an appropriate title for this novel?
3. Discuss the character called Dad. Why do you think Haruf gave him that name? What does it signify?
4. What do we learn about Dad from the episode with Clayton? Why does Dad hallucinate a visit from Clayton’s wife?
5. There are many parental relationships in the novel: Dad and Mary and Lorraine, Willa and Alene, Lyle and John Wesley, for example. What makes some stronger than others?
6. Alice has many substitute mothers. Why do so many of the women want to take care of her? Who does she seem to respond to best?
7. One parental relationship in particular haunts the story: Dad and Frank. How does Dad feel about Frank at the end?
8. On page 43, Lyle counsels a couple who want to get married: “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.” How does this relate to his own life?
9. Why is Lyle’s sermon so inflammatory? What point is Haruf making about religion?
10. When Lyle goes out walking at night, he says he’s in search of “the precious ordinary.” (Page 162) What does he mean by that?
11. After Mary goes to Denver in search of Frank, she’s treated kindly by several strangers. What does this tell us about Mary, or about city life?
12. Lorraine has lost a child and is in an unfulfilling relationship. Do you think she’ll be happy to move back to Holt and take over Dad’s store? How do you imagine that will go?
13. Change is a theme that runs through the novel—fast change, slow change, changes in small-town living, changes in religion, changes in characters’ relationships. What larger point is Haruf making?
14. Why does John Wesley attempt suicide? Why doesn’t he go through with it?
15. What does Dad learn from the “visits” by his parents and Frank? Does Dad have regrets about his life?
16. Reread the closing paragraphs of the book. Why does Haruf end the novel this way?
17. Haruf’s language and punctuation are so plain, the writing is nearly austere. How does its simplicity contribute to the mood of the story?
18. In an interview in Publishers Weekly about Benediction, Haruf said: “In some ways, what happens in Holt happens in Denver, in Minneapolis, everywhere. Death is a fact of life, no matter where you live. Taking care of the dying is a necessity everywhere. Those are not conditions exclusive to small towns.” Did he succeed in making his story feel universal?
Plainsong and Eventide by Kent Haruf; An Unfinished Life by Mark Spragg; The Bartender’s Tale by Ivan Doig; The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin; In Open Spaces by Russell Rowland; The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage.