(Note: I read this book during my vacation and wrote this book review)
Benediction by Kent Haruf
Benediction begins with the terminal cancer diagnosis for Dad Lewis, the 77-year old owner of a hardware store in a small town in Eastern Colorado, and it follows him through his last two months of life.
The story is filled with losses. Even as we watch Dad Lewis experience the end of his life, we learn about the losses of every character – the losses of parents, children, lovers, marriages, relationships. But somehow there is also hope in this story. Even as some things come to an end, we also see the hint of beginnings.
Among the relationship cutoffs in the book, the primary one is the break between Dad Lewis and his gay son, Frank. All through the book you wonder if Frank will come home so they can reconcile, but what reconciliation there is comes only in a dream where Frank appears to his father, and even then it’s incomplete and unsatisfying.
The prose of the novel is as dry and sparse as the Eastern Colorado plains where it is set. We only learn about the character’s interior thoughts and feelings by inferring them from the spare dialogue that is pitch-perfect for this part of the country. Haruf lived in the part of the country and has a good ear for the language.
Although Dad Lewis isn’t religious, he consents to have the newly arrived minister at the Community Church come to visit him. The minister has been sent to this small town as a kind of punishment for speaking in favor of gay rights at his previous church in Denver. He preaches a sermon in church about loving one’s enemies during the Iraq War. Members of the congregation walk out and he loses his position, as well as his wife who is fed up with being a pastor’s wife. His son attempts suicide and he decides to leave the ministry. Haruf grew up in a minister’s family and clearly knows the pain and complexity of pastoral life.
Only Willa and Alene, an old woman and her retired schoolteacher daughter, stand by the minister as he is “crucified” by his church board. The minister is obviously a Jesus figure in the novel.
Although this is not a Christian novel, Christian themes are woven throughout the fabric of the book. When Willa and Alene, who live out in the country, invite eight-year old Alice and Dad Lewis’ daughter to a picnic at their farm, the older ladies have a feast in the grass that resembles Communion. Then they take off their clothes so they can swim in the stock tank. Alice joins them and they teach her to float on her back for what is obviously a baptismal scene.
In the course of the book, Dad Lewis confronts the dark places of his past. His own angry rejection of his father is replicated in his son’s angry rejection of him. He admits to his daughter, “I wasn’t paying attention. I missed a lot of things. I could have done better.”
In his dreams, he wrestles with things he has done and left undone, and comes to terms with them in one way or another. Some are unresolved, some are reconciled, just as in life. Haruf’s gentle wisdom and pastoral touch leave the reader with a sense of pathos and tragedy tinged with hope, a Benediction at the last.
The ending of the novel is somewhat odd. Dad Lewis has died, the body has been taken away, and plans for the memorial service have been made. That would seem like a good place to end the story, but one more thing happens. Little eight-year old Alice is missing. She has ridden away on her bicycle and she hasn’t come back. A frantic search doesn’t find her, but at dusk she comes walking wearily up the road. She got lost on the country roads, had a flat tire, and walked home. This final story is like a parable for all the losses in the novel, like the parable of the lost sheep. Yes, there have been losses, but in all the losses something has been found. Hope abides.