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BenedictionReview - Benediction
A Novel
by Kent Haruf
Vintage, 2013
Review by Bob Lane
Oct 6th 2015 (Volume 19, Issue 41)

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 to love your enemy as made by Jesus. 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 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."

 

© 2015 Bob Lane

 

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


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