Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Benediction by Kent Haruf

“Benediction – the utterance of a blessing, an invocation of blessedness” is the epigraph that opens Kent Haruf’s new novel.   When I read the last page of this gem, I felt the "invocation of blessedness" in getting to share in the life of the quiet community Haruf has created in Holt, Colorado, also the setting of his acclaimed novel Plainsong.  Like Plainsong, Benediction is replete with everyday characters capable of stealing your heart. 

The main character, Dad Lewis, gets the news that he has terminal cancer in the book’s opening lines:  “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.”

When Dad and his wife, Mary, return from the doctor, she takes him a tray of food and a bottle of beer.
“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.”

Everyone in Holt calls Dad Lewis “Dad” even the employees at the hardware store he’s owned for decades.  It’s an apt moniker as hardware store owners remain among the few who listen to our problems and offer us simple solutions or force us to face the reality that we might just need a bigger fix – just like our own “Dads” or the “Dads” we wish we had. Haruf’s writing provides the gift of making us feel that a man like Dad is someone we'd like in our own lives - well, most of the time. 

Food is an essential element in Benediction. In towns like Holt, people still bring food when someone is ill, still sit down together for meals, still have potlucks at church, and still tell people they love them by bringing them a covered dish.  When Mary ends up hospitalized with exhaustion, neighbor, Berta May, arrives at Dad’s door with a plate of food and questions: “Are you sick or something? Are you going to die?”  That’s how it is in Holt, Colorado; people get to the point and they take care of one another. 

After Mary’s hospitalization, daughter Lorraine comes home to help.  She’s still not over the death of her own daughter at the age of sixteen in a long ago accident.  Her marriage isn’t strong and she’s had no recent contact with her brother, Frank, who’s long been estranged from their father.  Dad’s health fails and he begins to sit and watch the world from his window while contemplating the mistakes he’s made and savoring the love of the people around him.  That Haruf has been a hospice volunteer is evident in the care with which he depicts the process of dying, death, and the details of lovingly caring for the terminally ill.

Neighbor Berta May has taken in her eight-year-old granddaughter, Alice, after her mother’s death from cancer. Lorraine is drawn to the child but young Alice sees parallels in Dad’s condition that bring back painful memories so she tries to avoid the Lewis family. The Johnson women, an old widow and longtime church friend and her daughter, begin helping out and they take Alice on picnics, out for ice cream, and buy her a bicycle that allows her freedom and burgeoning happiness. 

The community church’s new pastor who’s been sent to Holt as a last-ditch maneuver for his “inappropriate” sermons offers companionship but then commits the cardinal sin of preaching on the Sermon on the Mount and expecting his congregation to believe it.  “People don’t want to be disturbed.  They want assurance.  They don’t want to come to church on Sunday morning to think about new ideas or even the old important ones.”  They certainly don’t want to be told to turn the other cheek and love their enemies.  They call Pastor Lyle a terrorist and can’t understand why he doesn’t hate Muslims as they do.  Only the Johnson women and a rule-bound usher stand by the pastor and the reader sees that Holt, like places everywhere, isn’t utopia.  Holt is a metaphor for the universality of cities, small towns and suburbs where everyone must deal with living, dying, and accepting the hand we’ve been dealt.

It’s easy to see that Haruf grew up as a preacher’s kid in a small town like Holt where people love and take care of each other but are often bound by the chains of small ideas, rules, and fear.  The minor characters sins loom over the landscape and provide the reader with a deeper understanding of Dad and this community he so loves.   My favorite play, Our Town, always reminds me that nothing matters more than this day.  Benediction offers the same reminder wrapped in a package that allows us to see it clearly.

Summing it Up: Kent Haruf is the master of the quotidian: celebrating and sharing the lives of ordinary people doing ordinary things.  Read this novel to share in the rhythm of the land and the people and to rejoice that there are still writers who carry us with them into a world both completely familiar yet new enough to stun us into contemplating our own lives.  Haruf’s writing is grace personified.

Rating: 5 stars   

Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Gourmet, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Soul Food, Book Club

Publication date: February 26, 2013

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