Remorse

Benediction by Kent Haruf

BenedictionBenediction by Kent Haruf My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Holt, Colorado – a blunt-edged town on the eastern edge of Colorado’s high and dry plains – where time ticks like the cooling engine of car. Storms build in billowing clouds on the horizon, summers grind through with breathless heat, winters drive ice and snow from across the flat middle of the country. It is as it has always been. It seems so little changes in this quiet, gently ticking community, but one moment it’s the 1960’s, the next it’s the new millennium, and you find yourself at the edges of your life.

So it must seem to Dad Lewis, on octogenarian who has just been told his future is measured in weeks. When he wipes a shirtsleeve across the Holt’s dusty surface and peers in, he sees a world so very different from the one he shaped when he was a young husband, growing a new business, a daughter and a son. The new preacher, banished from Denver for speaking out for a gay colleague, is hardly the model for atonement he expected as he waits to be ushered into the next life; the daughter of his neighbor, once a fresh and bright teacher, has returned a retired spinster; “the War” refers not to sandy beaches on France’s Atlantic coast or even jungles in Southeast Asia, but to barren mountains in Afghanistan and vast deserts in the Middle East. His children moved on long ago. His wife is an old woman.

But in this brief interlude between learning his long life is ending and taking his last breath, Dad Lewis has an opportunity to make one last impression before he returns as he came: from nothing into nothing. What will his Benediction be?

This is less a story than a series of vignettes about regret and compassion. Kent Haruf rarely grants redemption to his characters, just as life itself doles out redemption in meager dribs, offering only enough grace to keep us going until our time plays out.

Kent Haruf is a master of the understatement. He is a sublime observer, less a storyteller than a whispering carney offering glimpses into the circus of life. His narratives are quiet, moving to a gentle rhythm. At first glance, they can seem as dry and simple as the flat, square towns on Colorado’s eastern border where his stories are set. You think you have taken it all in, standing there on the edge by the feed store, looking straight down 6th avenue to the water tower that rises like at sentinel on the other end of town. But as Lyle, the preacher-turned-pariah, learns during his midnight rambles down silent streets, what is really there is rarely what you see.

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Book Review: Flora by Gail Godwin

FloraFlora by Gail Godwin My rating: 5 of 5 stars

To paraphrase Colm Tóibín, skilled writers explore not the spaces crowded with words and stories, characters and events; they explore the empty spaces, the quiet that most of us seek to fill with the noise of life.

In her gently menacing Flora Gail Godwin creates a character of the empty space. It hovers just beyond the threshold of every doorway at the sprawling One Thousand Sunset Drive and in the dense North Carolina woods that may someday swallow whole the lodge and its remaining inhabitants. It listens in on whispered conversations behind closed doors, it reads letters tucked in the top drawer of a bureau, and it haunts a little girl’s dreams.

In the summer of 1945, deep in the woods of Appalachia, Helen Anstruther is approaching her eleventh birthday. She comes to us by way of her seventy-something self, looking back on that long-ago summer with tenderness and remorse. We know this little girl is about to face something terrible - Godwin’s careful foreshadowing releases a current of dread from its opening pages. But the narrator takes her time, giving us empty spaces to fill with our own coming-of-age memories.

Helen’s world contracts dramatically as school ends for the summer. Her father is called to Oak Ridge, Tennessee to work on a secret military project and leaves her in the care of her young aunt, Flora. We know, of course, what Oak Ridge means and how the summer of 1945 ends, but to Helen, World War II is in the abstract – something that fills radio hours and sermons. Not long after Flora arrives from Alabama, there is a polio outbreak in town. Helen’s father quarantines his daughter and Flora to the lonely lodge on the mountain. Their only relief from each other is the weekly visit by Mrs. Jones, who cleans Astruther Lodge, and by Finn, who delivers for the town grocer. During these “three weeks in June, all of July, and the first six days of August” we quietly explore the head and heart of a lonely little girl.

But the novel’s title is not Helen, it is Flora. And it is Flora's behavior and essence adult Helen attempts to reconcile with her memories and her excavation of the quiet spaces during the summer of 1945 at One Thousand Sunset Drive.

This is not a novel of events, though the few that occur are earth shattering. It is a work of voices- voices from the past, from the grave, from letters and awkward telephone calls, voices from inside. It is the voice of child who is just discovering her own power but has no idea how to restrain it or use it only for good. It is the voice of longing and regret.

It’s the perfect time to read this novel, on the cusp of these long, warm days filled with such promise. Do you remember how it felt to be a child at the start of summer break, long before today’s hyper-programmed “vacations”? Recall that feeling of freedom and possibility, with just a tinge of loneliness and boredom. Now imagine how your world could turn upside-down in just a few short, golden weeks. Allow yourself some empty space.

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