There are a number of great North American writers who set their stories in fictional places that represent locales in which they live or once lived. Some that immediately spring to mind are Margaret Laurence’s small town of Manawaka in Manitoba, Canada, Elizabeth Strout’s and Richard Russo’s communities in Maine, Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi and Hemingway’s short stories set in small town Horton’s Bay in Michigan.
Our particular favourite is Kent Haruf, whose wonderful, contemporary stories are set in and around the high plains Colorado town of Holt.
Haruf’s prose is reminiscent of Hemingway, in that he writes with the same pared down sensibility and simple, declarative sentences.
Haruf leapt to prominence in 1999 with Plainsong — which one reviewer aptly described as being so delicate and lovely that it had the power to exalt the reader. This was followed in 2004 by Eventide, an overwhelmingly beautiful and engrossing sequel with the same cast of main characters.
As readers who’ve become entranced with Haruf’s way with words expected, the males remained as stoic and the women as long-suffering as their sparse and desolate high plains climate. Underlying this, they are sympathetic and very believable, with a strong dose of generosity and humaneness hidden under their wind-bitten facades. One reviewer of the sequel called the elderly male protagonists “too goodhearted” — and this is why most readers just can’t get enough of them. They are men of honour — honour that is sincere, not boastful.
After a wait of nine years, Haruf’s new novel, Benediction, is on the shelves and being widely praised as his best yet, “like a honed, shining piece of wood or an especially fine garment”.
It is also set in Holt, but with a different cast of characters and a different set of community issues, which include terminal cancer, homosexuality, broken marriages and the terse lives of relatives who are carers. The elderly McPherson brothers who became so beloved to readers in the first books are replaced by dad Lewis, who has been diagnosed with cancer.
But why give the plot away? It’s enough to say that the novel will garner a new lot of Haruf fans and please those who have visited Holt before.
The biblical implications of the novels’ titles are obvious, and the characters and their actions can be compared with those of heroic figures in the Old and New Testaments. The teasing out of those threads could give members of an intellectual book club much pleasure.
It is not necessary to read the three novels in sequence as they stand alone, all literary masterpieces and addictive reads. Once one is finished you’ll probably go scrabbling after the others and might even pick up on Haruf’s earlier works, also set in Holt, such as The Tie That Binds and Where You Once Belonged, and you might get hooked on his short stories.
For those with a geographic bent, Holt is based on the real Colorado town of Yuma, where Haruf lived in the 1980s.
I’ll close with another reviewer’s statement: “If you want to meet characters who will stay with you for days, weeks, years after you close the book, if you want to find faith in the human spirit, then pick up one of these stellar books.”
For more information on Bookworm go to bookwormhanoi.com. Besides their original store on Chau Long, Bookworm have a second, smaller shop in Nghi Tam Village in the West Lake area. Located behind the Sheraton and in the same alley as VilaTom Coffee, it can be found at Lane 1/28 Au Co, Lang Nghi Tam, Tay Ho