“They say drowning is the way to go, isn’t that right?” Dad Lewis asks the loyal employees of his hardware store in Kent Haruf’s moving new novel, Benediction. “But how anybody would know that, I don’t know.”
In this graceful story of a dying man, Haruf brings the reader as close as possible to death’s threshold and shows a community’s dignified response to the impending loss. As Benediction opens, the doctor tells elderly Dad Lewis that cancer will soon kill him. His wife, Mary, and daughter, Lorraine, take care of him during his last days. As usual with Haruf’s work, the plot and prose are deceptively simple.
As in Haruf’s Plainsong and Eventide, Benediction is set in the fictional town of Holt on the eastern plains of Colorado, where “the regular small complaint and recover of the porch swing” is the ambient sound, and it features several families whose lives converge. Dad Lewis is a pillar of the community, “a man you can set your clock by,” whose unusual name fits this patriarchal figure. Although he’s admired by most, he nevertheless faces his death with several agonizing regrets.
Dad’s neighbors are Berta May, a woman in her 80s, who is raising her 8-year-old granddaughter Alice in the wake of her daughter’s death, and the widowed Willa and her daughter Alene, a retired teacher who regrets her affair with a married man decades earlier that never resulted in a husband or child of her own.
Through tentative, tender gestures, Alene and Willa participate in raising Alice, a regular girl, but also a symbol of innocence and youth to Dad and his neighbors, reminding them of all the children they have loved, lost or never had the opportunity to create.