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