Holt's last days

  • A rural Colorado home.

    Blake W. Beyea/Esca Photography
 

Benediction: A Novel
Kent Haruf
258 pages, hardcover:
$25.95.
Knopf, 2013.

Death hovers over Benediction, the latest of novelist Kent Haruf's books about the eastern Colorado town of Holt. Two earlier works are called Plainsong and Eventide, and the liturgical nuances of the titles seem fitting as this benevolent Colorado novelist bids farewell to a dying world. A definition serves as the book's epigraph: "Benediction -- the utterance of a blessing, an invocation of blessedness."

Like Haruf's previous work, Benediction offers a nonjudgmental study of ordinary lives in a mundane rural environment, replete with the troubles and joys all humans encounter. Holt might appear uneventful, even boring, but Haruf's sensitive portraits of its residents make readers empathize with their problems, from family strife to homophobia to money troubles to suicide.

"Dad" Lewis, a new character in the trilogy, receives a terminal cancer diagnosis on page one; the reader accompanies him through his last summer in this quiet yet rich, isolated agricultural community. Dad was one of Holt's eminent citizens, owner of the hardware store; he ends his days surrounded by his wife, Mary, their middle-aged daughter, Lorraine, and the animated memories of a lifetime.

Other townspeople linger around him, some of them visitors from the wider world, others the ghosts of Holt's outcasts, like his absent yet ever-present gay son, Frank, long estranged from his father and the conservative mores of a place that seems to have been bypassed by the 21st century.

Not only are the older townspeople of Holt fading away; even the young succumb. Lorraine's daughter is killed in a car crash. Next door, Lorraine's contemporary has died of breast cancer, leaving a daughter, Alice, to be raised by her grandmother, who rises to this unexpected responsibility with tough stoicism.

Alice is the only young person in Holt, it seems, who brings light and life to the older generations surrounding her. When Alice and the elderly women swim naked in the stock tank on a scorching day, joy reigns. "The women climbed into the tank with her and squatted down and lay back and floated and stood streaming. Their faces and bodies shining. Later they got out and dried off. … Their hair was still damp. It felt heavy and cool on the backs of their necks." It is a benediction of sorts.