By Kent Haruf

(Knopf, $25.95, 272 pages)

Who is this author?

Kent Haruf is a native Coloradan who has set three of his successful novels – “Plainsong,” “Eventide” and now “Benediction” — in the state he knows so well. They take place in Holt, a fictional High Plains town inspired those of by Haruf’s boyhood. He  also is the author of “The Tie That Binds” (1984) and “Where You Once Belonged” (1990).

His writing has won him major honors: a Whiting Foundation Writers’ Award, the Mountains & 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 and his wife, Cathy, have eight children between them, including his three daughters, from previous marriages. He had been teaching at Southern Illinois University when the profits he realized from best-selling “Plainsong,” which became a 2004 CBS TV movie starring Rachel Griffiths, enabled him to retire and return to Colorado.

What is this book about?

“Benediction” tells the story of a dying man. “Dad” Lewis,  and his wife Mary, who struggle to make his last days meaningful and peaceful, with the help of their daughter, who leaves the big city (Denver) to help out in Holt. But issues remain with their son, who is at odds with the family. Neighbors are affected by Dad’s illness, which echoes sadness they too have endured, and a new minister arrives in town, bearing with him problems with his wife and teenaged son and upsetting his congregation with his ideas. Meanwhile, a widow and her daughter do their best to comfort those in need. 

Why you’ll like it:

Haruf once told an interviewer this about his book, “Plainsong,” and it applies as well to “Benediction”:  “In the Plains, things are stripped down to the essentials, and that seems to fit what [“Plainsong”] is about and that seemed to be an obvious setting for this story.” His readers appreciate his calm and low-key voice, which reflects the simple landscape and ways of Holt, an unpretentious place. His stories show the author’s compassion for his  characters and hold out the possibility of grace, even for those who don’t seem to have earned it.

What others are saying:

Writing in  The Washington Post,  Ron Charles says: “…Haruf may be the most muted master in American fiction: our anti-Franzen. Haruf’s…novels are as plain and fortifying as steel-cut oatmeal: certified 100-percent irony-free, guaranteed to wither magic realism, stylistic flourishes and postmodern gimmicks…At its best, “Benediction” offers deceptively simple “little dramas, the routine moments” of small-town life, stripped to their elemental details. Haruf’s minimalism achieves more emotional impact than seems possible with such distilled material and so few words…He produces the kind of scenes that Hemingway might have written had he survived the ravages of depression.”

Publishers Weekly says:  “In Holt, the fictional Colorado town where all of Haruf’s novels are set, longtime resident Dad Lewis is dying of cancer. Happily married (he calls his wife “his luck”), Dad spends his last weeks thinking over his life, particularly an incident that ended badly with a clerk in his store, and his relationship with his estranged son. As his wife and daughter care for him, life goes on: one of the Lewises’ neighbors takes in her young granddaughter; an elderly woman and her middle-aged daughter visit with the Lewises, with each other, and with the new minister, whose wife and son are unhappy about his transfer to Holt from Denver. Haruf isn’t interested in the trendy or urban; as he once said, he writes about “regular, ordinary, sort of elemental” characters, who speak simply and often don’t speak much at all. “Regular and ordinary” can equate with dull. However, though this is a quiet book, it’s not a boring one. Dad and his family and neighbors try, in small, believable ways, to make peace with those they live among, to understand a world that isn’t the one in which they came of age. Separately and together, all the characters are trying to live—and in Dad’s case, to die—with dignity, a struggle Haruf …renders with delicacy and skill.”

“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,” says John Freeman in The Boston Globe.

“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,” says Ben Goldstein in 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,”  says Karen R. Long in The Cleveland Plain Dealer.

When is it available?

The Downtown Hartford Public Library has “Benediction” on its new book shelves.

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