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  Our Souls at NightReview – Our Souls at Night
A Novel
by Kent Haruf
Knopf, 2015
Review by Bob Lane
Oct 20th 2015 (Volume 19, Issue 43)

 

Crucial elements of stories and storytelling include plot, characters, place, and narrative point of view. Stories are the fabric of a culture. Once in a while a story teller appears who brings those ingredients together in way that moves us deeply, that speaks to our soul.

Read the review.

Sunday’s Sermon: BENEDICTION

Seems appropriate to republish Bob’s review of this novel. I have read it and found  it moving.

Title: BENEDICTIONharuf
Author: Kent Haruf
Publisher: Alfred E. Knopf
Publication Date: 2013
Review by Bob Lane

People don’t want to be disturbed. They want assurance. They don’t come to church on Sunday morning to think about new ideas or even the important old ones. They want to hear what they’ve been told before, with only some small variation on what they’ve been hearing all their lives, and then they want to go home and eat pot roast and say it was a good service and feel satisfied. (193)

That comment by the Reverend Lyle captures perfectly the attitude of many in the congregation who show up at the Sunday service but are astonished and offended when the reverend preaches from Luke, emphasizing the beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount, especially the call as made by Jesus to love your enemy . The time is post 9/11 and the USA is fighting yet another war. To speak of love and peace and forgiveness and turn the other cheek is considered by many in the small town to be a traitorous act.

“But what is Jesus Christ talking about? He can’t mean this literally. That would be impossible. He must have been speaking of some utopian idea, a fantasy. …using a metaphor.” Lyle asks his congregants to consider that the words Jesus uses are not metaphors, are not descriptive of an impossible world, but should be taken as imploring us to act on them in the here and now. “But I want to say to you here on this hot July morning in Holt, what if Jesus wasn’t kidding? What if he wasn’t talking about some never-never land? What if he really did mean what he said two thousand years ago?”
These are hardworking patriotic freedom loving Americans. Many rise from their pews and storm out of the church.
“People don’t want to be disturbed.” People like to hold on to their beliefs without thinking about them. Like to move unthinking in the world comfortable in the attitudes and beliefs that they take in from the television news, from their same-thinking (right-thinking) neighbours. And they certainly do not want to be offended by these big city ideas that Reverend Lyle brings to Holt.
Lyle has been sent to the church in Holt from Denver because he had attempted to defend homosexuals in the Denver area. He is the promise of change that enters this small town.

One of the characters in BENEDICTION talks of “the precious ordinary” and that phrase accurately captures the feel of the novel. For Haruf the imaginary town of Holt, Colorado has been the fictional setting for several of his novels. Small town, USA. Out on the plains in northeastern Colorado and filled with ordinary citizens and their relationships and lives on the windswept plains near the sand hills – and always with the big sky, the sun, and the clouds and the rain and hail and snow and heat. Benediction (we are told in an epigraph) is “the utterance of a blessing, and invocation of blessedness.”
It is a simple story: “Dad” Lewis is dying of cancer. His wife and daughter are caring for him in his final days, and we learn of his life and the lives of other long-time Holt inhabitants. We discover hope and love in the precious ordinary as well as violence, hatred and small town silliness. His son is missing, having divorced the family long ago, because he doesn’t fit in to the football oriented small minded small town. Dad Lewis connects with him only in his dying dreams.
I do not mean to suggest the novel is a religious argument in any way. It transcends religion. It is a story that has a religious grandeur to it. It speaks of life and death. It celebrates the precious ordinary with a power that will move you to tears. Yes, Dad Lewis dies. No, he is not reconciled with his son. He has lived a long and useful life, acted with good intentions, and has attempted always to be a fair man.
We hear a lot about the weather in the novel; and for anyone with experience of the plains that is just right. So much depends upon what the sky delivers. Life depends on those clouds in the sky. Life giving rain or crop destroying hail can come at any time.
The reviewer in The Denver Post writes, “The coiling of Haruf’s Holt, a fictional hamlet several hours east of Denver where Haruf’s earlier novels “Plainsong” and “Eventide” were also set, is at turns graceful and prickly. Holt’s rhythms are driven by a recognizable rural paradox — expansive skies suggest limitless freedom, but nothing goes unnoticed. A tight community is a double-edged scythe. It’s there when you need it, but also when you don’t. Dad’s debility brings well-wishers to the door and secrets to the surface.”
Haruf is brilliant at capturing the language and the feel of the people in small town Eastern Colorado – the syntax, the rhythm, the inability to express emotions – he tells it like it is.
Full disclosure: I was raised as a kid in this part of the world. Most of my generation couldn’t wait to get out of there. But it had its own beauties and a large number of good people. Thanks to Kent Haruf for capturing it with such honesty and celebrating in words the “precious ordinary.”

© Bob Lane is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo, BC.

Review

Title: Our Souls at Night Souls
Author: Kent Haruf
Publisher: Alfred E. Knopf
Date: 2014

Review by Bob Lane

Crucial elements of stories and storytelling include plot, characters, place, and narrative point of view. Stories are the fabric of a culture. Once in a while a story teller appears who brings those ingredients together in way that moves us deeply, that speaks to our soul. Let me say from the start that when I use the word ‘soul’ I do not mean a Cartesian soul – immaterial, existing separately from body, eternal; but rather that divinity and spirit which are to be found not through blind faith but through finding and sending down roots to the deepest part of one’s unique self. As is true in botany, those roots spread out into the wider community and can nourish us and give us a healthy life. How do we know when we are living in the best place for those roots to grow? In so much as we do indeed “grow a soul” we should consider carefully the garden in which that soul grows.
For Kent Haruf that place is the fictional town of Holt, Colorado – a small town on the plains northeast of Denver, close to Kansas and Nebraska – a town supporting the farmers and ranchers who grow the food required by the country. A place where the weather is of prime importance – at any time a small cloud can populate the sky and expand to bring the end of an entire year’s crop with a violent hail storm. Just as William Faulkner created the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Kent Haruf has created Holt County as the place for his characters to live, love, and die; a place where they grow their souls. Faulkner famously said, “The past is not dead. In fact it’s not even past.”
In general we use art to extend the reach of sense into the making of a world. Specifically, we use the art of storytelling to construct a story of ourselves in our world. We loop back from the objective world to the subjective world to construct a story of ourselves in our world. As the representation of the self loops back onto itself exemplarizing the experience of a life, the self becomes unified in a story of a life. And by extension in a story of a culture.
Think of Homer, that great story-teller of the distant past. He populated his stories with the gods of the time. Think of the Hebrew Bible which begins at the beginning with a story of the creation. The creation myth can be read as a description of any act of creation: first the intention, then the translation from mind to matter, and then the evaluation: “and it was good” The creation myth, when read aloud, will be heard to be an accurate description of the completion of any creative act. In writing a poem or story one starts with an idea and a blank and formless page. The creative act of beginning to “blow” life into that page and after some time (and with some luck) giving form to the stuff of the mind, transforming it into a new medium has formed a completed work. The poet does not know the poem until it is finished. And when finished the feeling is there to be expressed: “And it is good.”
Our Souls at Night is Haruf’s final novel (he died in November 2014). It opens with the coming together of two old acquaintances in the town of Holt. Addie Moore, a widow stops in to see her long-time neighbour, Louis Waters, who is also widowed. Both are in their seventies. Addie makes the shocking proposal that they begin sleeping together, without sex, just to provide the comfort of companionship and the opportunity to talk together privately. Louis, a retired teacher, has a daughter and has lost his wife to illness. Addie has a son and has lost her husband to illness. They have both been alone for years and although they have known each other (everyone knows everyone in a small town) they have never been close. After considering this her proposal for some time, Louis packs his pajamas in a paper bag and walks over to Addie’s house where he knocks on the back door. She insists that he come to the front and that they not be ashamed of their actions for she has decided to do what she wants for once in her life.
In Addie’s bed at night the two share the past. They talk about their marriages, their relationships, their feelings, an affair, the death of a daughter, their lives. After a few visits Louis leaves his pajamas at Addie’s house. The small town gossips soon begin to talk. These two must violating some religious rule or command. They must be having non-marital sex together. Louis’s daughter complains to her father. Addie’s son, Gene, faced with marital problems, sends his young son to stay with his grandmother. Addie and Louis slowly connect with the boy and soon the three of them are going on picnics, playing catch, and selecting a dog for the boy.
Haruf is at his best in presenting this fictional, but oh, so real, town and its townspeople set there in the plains – decent people and small- minded people, saints and sinners, working, talking living and dying. There are moments of tenderness in the relationship between the two elderly characters and moments of defiance between the two intimates and the town’s people. The recollections they share are moving and human especially when they are talking about errors that they have made. Here is Addie, for example, talking about the effect of her husband’s death:

But even now I can see it all clearly and feel that kind of otherworldliness, the sense of moving in a dream and making decisions that you didn’t know you had to make, or if you were sure of what you were saying. Gene was terribly upset by it. . . . It would have been better if we could have helped each other but that didn’t happen. I don’t think I tried too hard myself.

Haruf’s final novel is a love story. He has given us a love story of two decent characters who try to assert their connectedness into a world of suspicion and small mindedness. And like so many love stories it ends badly and with sadness.
Write your story, live your life, so when finished it can be said, “And it was good.”

Bob Lane is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo, BC.