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The Kindness of Strangers: The Fiction of Kent Haruf

Spring 2009 - Vol. 51, No. 2

JEFFREY FOLKS has taught in Europe, America, and Japan, most recently as Professor of Letters in the Graduate School of Doshisha University in Japan. He has published numerous books and articles on American literature including In a Time of Disorder: Form and Meaning in Southern Fiction from Poe to O'Connor (2003) and Damaged Lives: Southern and Caribbean Narrative from Faulkner to Naipaul. (2005).

In 1999, when Kent Haruf burst on thescene, so to speak, with his bestsellingnovel Plainsong, he was already fifty-sixyears old. At this point, Haruf had beenwriting fiction for well over thirty yearsand had published two previous novels,The Tie That Binds in 1984 and WhereYou Once Belonged in 1990. Although hisearly novels earned him a degree of criticalrecognition, neither was a popular success.Following graduation from NebraskaWesleyan University and the Iowa Writer'sWorkshop, where he earned an MFA, mostof Haruf 's life had been spent working inagriculture, construction, and teaching.Only after the popular success of Plainsong,which was also filmed as a CBS televisionmovie, was Haruf able to devote himselffull time to writing.

It seems fitting that Haruf, the son of aMethodist minister and one who has spentmost of his life on the Great Plains, shouldachieve his first real success with a novelentitled Plainsong. His writing is, after all,both a "song" of the plains and a stylisticapproximation of "plainsong," a variety ofmonophonic Christian vocal music expressiveof the quiet devotion and devout faithof the religious communities in which it ispracticed. Haruf 's writing is marked by anattitude of stillness and reflection devotedto the enduring relationship of humanbeings to a particular place, a stable codeof ethics, and an unwavering faith in thegoodness of life. This faith in what T. S.Eliot called the "permanent things" affordssolace and defense against the chaoticforce inherent in both nature and humansociety—a force of disorder that withinour nation's symbolism has always beenconnected with the Western frontier. Eventoday, the West, populated as one imaginesby a raggedy band of misfits, cultists, survivalists,and hardened loners, remains thelocus of America's outlaw mythology. Likethe "American nomads" of whom RichardGrant writes in a book of the same name,Haruf depicts Westerners who are engagedin a "process of retreat and withdrawal,from the damage within themselves andhuman relationships in general."1 UnlikeGrant's nomads, however, who include lostconquistadors, mountain men, cowboys,Indians, hoboes, and bullriders, amongothers, and all of whom seem to prefertheir proud, uncompromising solitude tothe less-than-ideal accommodation of everydaylife, Haruf 's rebellious spirits findthemselves tamed, even amidst the physicalisolation of the great Western plains, bythe redemptive force of an enduring civilization.Unlike the many desperado figuresin our popular culture (Clint Eastwood,Waylon Jennings, Thelma and Louise, andthe rest), Haruf 's drifters and rebels cravethe protective shelter of those caring, generoussouls, themselves often reclusive bynature, who discover their own redemptionin acts of charity. Thus, in Haruf 's fictionthe Western myth is humanized andassuaged, and the simplistic image of theoutlaw hero prevalent in our popular cultureis displaced by a more realistic imageand underlying truth: that the goodnessof heartland America, and of America as awhole, is grounded in traditional values andvirtues that foster acceptance rather thanisolation, serenity rather than violence, beliefrather than doubt. As Jonathan Mileswrote (in an otherwise dismissive review),Plainsong is "a life raft for people who feltthey were drowning in the sour froth ofpop cynicism."2

The problem is, of course, that as acivilization we have been drowning in asea of cynicism, and the consequences ofthis sneering distrust become more apparent,decade by decade. As Leszek Kolakowskihas suggested, there exists "aclose link between the dissolution of thesacred" and certain "spiritual phenomena"that contribute to the decline and perhaps"suicide" of Western culture. Accordingto Kolakowski, these phenomena include"the love of the amorphous, the desire forhomogeneity, the illusion that there are nolimits to the perfectibility of which humansociety is capable, immanentist eschatologies,and the instrumental attitude towardlife."3 The damaging effects of these phenomenamanifest themselves throughoutour culture, from the extraordinarily highdivorce rates to the reduction of socialcommunities to a humorless, legalistic exerciseof correctness, to the cult-like appealof radical ideologies. At the core ofKent Haruf 's artistic sensibility, there existsjust such an awareness of the waningof belief in the sacred. Like Kolakowski,Haruf records the dangerous appeal of theamorphous: the urge to flee from the burdensof responsibility, tradition, and constancyin search of greater personal freedomand choice. In novels that depict theneed for commitment, charity, and mostof all faith, Haruf points to the destructiveimplications of a humanistic philosophythat would elevate personal freedomand pleasure above all other values. Withhis profound reverence for life, Haruf opposesthose forces of contemporary culture,from the deadening influence of state bureaucraciesto the dulling materialism andstandardization of consumer culture, thatundermine the value of human life and theessential awareness of the sacred.

Given Haruf 's pervasive sense of culturaldamage, it is not surprising that histhematic intentions focus on two centralmatters: first, a compelling documentationof the decline of the sacred and, second, aregister of the damage that this decline hascaused. In his understanding of the conceptof the sacred, however, Haruf is less interestedin the influence of sectarian religiouspractices than he is in a deep-seated anduniversal religious sensibility that underliesthe most important human affiliations,among them the relationships of parentsand children, the response to nature, andthe ever-present awareness of human mortality.Though much of contemporary behaviorseems to proceed from the cynicalassumption that existence is fundamentallyirremediable and anarchic, the centralityof purposeful action grounded in religiousfaith has always stood at the center ofWestern identity. Within classical culturefocused on the vita activa, there resided anunshakable confidence concerning the potentialityfor human action. It is this faith,extending to a conviction regarding theexistence of an afterlife, which has beengenerally dismissed with the rise of skepticismin contemporary culture, withinwhich it is not action but various forms ofconstriction and relinquishment that havepreoccupied philosophical speculation. Inthe view of theorists from Nietzsche toHeidegger and from Sartre to Foucault,existence is best understood in terms of absenceand loss, and human action is moreapt to be viewed as purposeless and indifferentthan as good, and within the cultureof suspicion that has arisen in the wake ofthis destructive theory, all assertions ofpurposeful action are greeted with distrust.Gradually, throughout the past century,an "age of decline" in which CzeslawMilosz detects an ever greater materialism,nihilism, and "collapse of values,"4 theconception of human life as the vita activahas largely disappeared among intellectuals,and a culture of absence and oppositionhas taken hold.

Kent Haruf 's novels constitute a sophisticatedresponse to this spreading tide ofdefeatism. At the center of these fictionalworks is a focus on the classical-Christianfaith in human existence as purposeful andgood, and at the heart of this mythos is arecognition of the new beginning that entersthe world with the birth of every child.A vivid example of this affirmation is themeeting of the elderly McPheron brothersand seventeen-year-old Victoria Roubideauxin the novel Plainsong. Harold andRaymond McPheron, lifelong bachelorssunk in a stagnant round of farm choresand a sterile, silent home life, appear to be"doomed" by their loss of opportunity forpurposeful action. As Harold says, "Thinkof us. Crotchety and ignorant. Lonesome.Independent. Set in all our ways. How yougoing to change now at this age of life?"5Reduced to a fruitless and reclusive condition,lacking beauty, joy, or the challengeof the unfamiliar, they are simply living outtheir lives and waiting for death. Yet Plainsongand Eventide, Haruf 's two novels thatfocus on the relationship of the McPheronbrothers and Victoria Roubideaux, depictthe transformation of isolated, unproductivelives into a more hopeful condition ofmutual responsibility. Their meeting withVictoria—indigent, bereft of emotionalsupport, and uncertain where to turn aftershe becomes pregnant—rekindles hopebecause it allows them the opportunity toengage in purposeful activity. After theirmeeting with Victoria, the McPherons arespurred to decisive action. As Raymondinforms his brother of his decision toshelter the young woman, he delivers thenews more as an ultimatum than a request,"Now, are you going to go in on this thingwith me or not? Cause I'm going to do itanyhow, whatever." To which Harold replies,"I will. I'll agree. I shouldn't, but Iwill. I'll make up my mind to it."6

The spare, laconic expression of theMcPherons suggests their moral clarityand their determination not merely to reflect but to act on behalf of their beliefs.Unbeknownst to them, Victoria begins toshare in this ethical imperative after shelearns that she is pregnant. Following hervisit to the Holt County Clinic, she standsin the street outside sensing that reality forher has become "hard-edged, definite, asif it were no longer merely a late fall afternoonin the hour before dusk, but insteadas if it were the first moment of noonin the exact meridian of summer."7 Hernewfound sense of distinctness and lucid-ity are the result of the revelation that sheis now almost solely responsible for thefuture well-being of a particular humanbeing. As the McPherons realize, this responsibility"ain't going to be no goddamnSunday school picnic,"8 but for Victoria itis in reality the great opportunity of herlife. It is most certainly the first time inher unstable, loveless existence that she hasentered into a permanent and total attachmentto anyone or anything. As her pregnancyproceeds, Victoria's self-awarenessand her appreciation of everything outsideherself changes. Even the dry, wind-swept,desolate landscape of Holt County seemstransformed.

In terms of this thematic emphasis, thelandscape of northeastern Colorado, infact, plays a significant role in Plainsong andin all of Haruf 's novels. The fictional HoltCounty, a mythic landscape that is at thesame time more desolate and more plenteousof spirit and beauty than any actualsetting that one could find, is the stuff ofmoral allegory. Although it may be basedon an actual locale, that of northeasternColorado, the region that Haruf depictsis more akin to that of John Bunyan: itis a desolate landscape with its own Cityof Destruction, an imaginative locale inwhich the consequences of moral choiceloom larger than any geographical feature.From what Haruf tells us of its early historyin The Tie That Binds, Holt County is theplace where a version of natural selectionhas taken place among settlers who havehad to wrest a meager living from the dry,sandy soil, and those who have remainedpossess special qualities of determination,durability, and patience coupled with thevirtues of humility and kindness. They arein this sense a "chosen people"—chosennot only by God but by the stark, winnowingeffects of the American heartland.An Old Testament sensibility attaches easilyto this culture and to Haruf 's renderingof it, and especially pertinent is the Biblicalaccount of Exodus. The early settlerson the Western frontier were leading theirfamilies out of slavery in the East, the landof Pharaohs in the guise of crippling taxesand governmental tyranny to the homesteadlands west of the Mississippi. Like thePromised Land beyond the River Jordan,Western land held out the promise of freedomand new life.

Accordingly, the landscape described inPlainsong suggests an existence that is oftencruel and unforgiving but that demandsmoral decisiveness and clarity. The nightin early March when Raymond sets outfor his ill-fated second "date" with LindaMay, Haruf captures a sense of the specialmoral loveliness of the plains:

It was a Saturday night, the sky overheadclear of any cloud, the stars asclean and bright as if they were nomore distant than the next barbedwirefence post standing up abovethe narrow ditch running besidethe narrow blacktop highway, everythingall around him distinctand unhidden. He loved how it alllooked, except that he would neverhave said it in that way. He mighthave said that this was just how itwas supposed to look, out on thehigh plains at the end of winter, on aclear fresh night.9

The moral idealism of heartland Americathat Haruf invokes hearkens back tofaith in America as a second Eden—aparadise not only because of its materialabundance but also because of its spiritualrichness. In this land settlers of modestmeans, or of none at all, could seek a lifeof dignity and purpose. In this noble endeavor,they brought with them the transformingknowledge of an inherited faithand ethical culture, and this inheritancewould at least afford solace and hope, ifnot always success. In the West these settlerspreserved and renewed the civilizationthat they brought with them from theEast. From this perspective, America's rolein world history was understood to be thatof conservator of the ancient traditions ofreverence for life that her earliest Europeansettlers had brought with them. Thesheer scale and rough splendor of the Westwere, after all, intricately connected witha national mythos of providential historythat Russell Martin terms "spatial hope."10Even as life in the eastern cities seemed toclose in upon one, even as the nation as awhole seemed at times to have lost its way,one could look to the West as a mythic settingof national virtue and strength. Thispotent myth remains a significant factor inour nation's conception of its identity andof its relationship to the rest of the world.

Equally a part of this myth is the recognitionof the paradox that the attractivenessof the frontier West as a last bastion of hopehas necessarily contributed to that region'sdiminishment as those who flee the Eastin search of opportunity bring with themcivilization's ills. Inevitably, hope must bequalified by evidence of the inherent corruptionof human nature, an unregeneratefeature of existence that trumps even frontieroptimism. It was this same evidence ofcorruption in the Old World that impelledthe Founders to establish an intricate systemof checks and balances, a governmentalsystem grounded on hope but also onthe recognition of the inherent fallibilityof human nature. Hannah Arendt creditedthe wisdom of American democracywhen she noted that, following the gradualloss of conviction in religion and traditionthroughout the post-medieval period, "therevolutions of the modern age appear likegigantic attempts to repair these foundations."11 In Arendt's view, only the AmericanRevolution was successful in attendingto the lapse of political order and reinstatinga system that was both stable and compellingof belief. While Arendt outlinedmany challenges to the survival of Americancivilization, she never lost faith in thevalue of the Founders' vision of a liberal democracygoverned within a constitutionalframework of law. It is not Haruf 's intention,of course, to engage in a discussion ofpolitical theory within the context of hisfiction, but, based on the manner in whichhe addresses similar concerns, it is clearthat he shares Arendt's faith. One of thequalities that the McPheron brothers sharewith Tom Guthrie is an adamant refusalto surrender their rights as free citizens. Intheir refusal to do so—as when Tom standsup to the attempts of Russell Beckman andhis family to usurp his proper authority as ateacher—Haruf 's protagonists defend theirrights within a democracy to move aboutand to congregate freely, to be recognizedas equals under the law, and to "speak theirpiece." Clearly, however, Haruf fears thatthese rights are at risk within a society inwhich, as Kolakowski noted, the claims ofhomogeneity and the radical demands offree will appear to override traditional restraintsof custom and belief.

As a result of the determination of atleast some of its citizens to preserve theirfreedoms, Holt County might well beseen as a promised land of the sort uponwhich the Founders premised their efforts.In contrast with the pointless frenzy ofpostmodernist culture, Haruf 's fictionalizedworld is a place of coherence and purposefulness,a place where roads are plattedon a grid running straight north-south oreast-west, and a place where an innate respectfor order still resides in the humanheart. The fictionalized Holt County possessesa deep simplicity—a quality that, asMark McCloskey points out, "is equatedwith virtue"12 in the novel—that acts as acounterbalance to the dominant cultureof alienation embodied in the closest largecity, Denver. This urban enchantress isthe place to which many of the youngerresidents of Holt County flee from theseeming boredom of life on the plains andwhere they seek pleasure in activities that,like the coarse party to which Dwaynetakes Victoria during her pregnancy, tendtoward the destruction of new life. In doingso, they are deserting a better place ofclear values and active goodness for a darkunderworld of moral confusion and selfcontempt.In Haruf 's imaginative world,those who flee from rural America to thecity soon find themselves in dreary, isolatingcircumstances, surviving in characterlessapartment buildings in which humanbeings are severed from nature and walledoff from each other.

The contrast with life on the McPheronranch could not be any greater. Here thebrothers are immersed in the rich life ofnature; here the weather plays a criticalrole in their efforts; and here birth and thenurturing of new life are the central activities.In his intricate descriptions of theMcPheron cattle operation, Haruf detailsthe processes of birthing, weaning, milking,and separating out cattle for slaughter,a labor that is bounded by the elementalforces of nature. There is, for example, thepowerful but disturbing scene in whichHaruf recounts the autopsy of a belovedhorse, Elko, as witnessed by her owners,two young boys. Yet in the way that Harufdescribes the cattle and farming operations,there is the inescapable implication thatthe same order of necessity enfolds humanaffairs, and it is largely in these terms thatthe McPherons initially interpret Victoria'spregnancy. Though she is not a cow givingbirth to a calf, Harold at first finds it difficult to separate her condition from that ofthe larger order of nature within which heas a rancher has been immersed for seventyyears. Clearly, he and Raymond do cometo distinguish her condition from that ofthe farm animals with which they are morefamiliar, yet on the elemental level, at least,the pattern of human life, with the cycle ofbirth, growth, maturity, and death, is nodifferent from what the brothers observein their ranching operation, and it is thisfact that human existence is bounded bynecessity that gives rise to their discoveryof life's precious opportunities for charity.Just as the brothers sometimes have to stepin to assist in the birth of calves, they willinglyassist Victoria in the months beforeand after the birth of her daughter. Fromtheir perspective, it is assumed that theywill volunteer this assistance as a matter ofcourse.

Out of this elemental condition emergesa culture of humanity and compassion,yet even as Haruf 's novels depict acts ofdecency and kindness on the part of theMcPherons and others, they suggest a paradoxicaltruth that the heartland's harshand unforgiving environment should fostersuch nobility while the less demandingurban milieu represented by Denver seemsa place of exploitation and degradation.Like William Blake in this respect, Haruffinds the urban scene filled with "marks ofweakness, marks of woe." Those who haveknown grief, ranchers like the McPheronswho have themselves struggled and havewitnessed the efforts and often the failuresof others, have learned hard lessons of concernand self-restraint, while others likeVicky's boyfriend, Dwayne, fail to registerthe suffering of others, perhaps becausethey have never had to suffer themselves.The reality of suffering and the needfor responsible behavior are made apparentthroughout Haruf 's writing. In his firstnovel, The Tie That Binds, we are introducedto Edith Goodnough, a woman whopractices self-denial and service to othersevery day of her life. Growing up in ahard-pressed agricultural economy beforethe Second World War, Edith finds that shemust give up the great love of her life, JohnRoscoe, in order to care for her widowedfather after he loses all but one of his fingersin a reaping machine accident. Unlikeher younger brother, Lyman, who as hisname suggests is essentially disingenuousand irresponsible, Edith is conscientious,perhaps to a fault. While Lyman spends thefirst two decades of his adulthood travelingaimlessly around the country, sendingEdith a packet of $20 bills every Christmasalong with only a tersely worded postcardidentifying the city in which he is living,Edith forgoes love and the chance for independencein order to devote herself tothe care of a disabled parent. When Lymanfinally returns to Holt County, he andEdith live together for six "good years,""almost as if they were honeymooners."13For Edith, however, the good years end alltoo soon, as Lyman drifts into senility.

Edith Goodnough is not the only characterin The Tie That Binds who experiencestragedy. Sanders Roscoe, the novel'sfirst-person narrator, is a young man whomust learn the hard lesson that life is ennobledonly by facing up to the circumstancesthat one finds oneself in. In Sandy'scase, this involves facing the consequencesof his own indecisiveness toward the roleof fatherhood. After he marries MavisPickett in 1963, he and Mavis lose theirfirst baby in a car accident in which LymanGoodnough is the driver. In 1969 Sandyand Mavis have another child, a daughternamed Rena Pickett, who then becomes afrequent visitor at the Goodnough farm.There, in a moment of anger and confusion,the crazed Lyman attacks Rena andEdith after beating the family dog, Nancy.In the end Edith is unable to care for herincreasingly dependent brother, and shedecides to end Lyman's and her own lifeby setting fire to the farmhouse, a solutionthat is only forestalled when Mavis andSandy hear Nancy barking where Edithhas tied her up outside. Having rushedto the burning farmhouse, Sandy realizesthat Edith wishes to die, and he attemptsto prevent the fire crew from entering thehouse. The crew is able to restrain him andremove Edith and Lyman, but Lyman diesin the hospital that night. Then, at the ageof eighty, Edith is charged with murder.At the end of the novel, it is the beautyof Edith's character that impresses Sandy,even as she faces prosecution for her brother'smurder. As he says, she has spent herentire life "without her ever understandinghow to say anything like a continuousyes to herself." She is "still in the ways thatmatter, just as fine and beautiful as she musthave been in 1922" when she was datingJohn Roscoe.14 Haruf 's handling of syntaxin these and other passages seems a perfectreflection of both the narrator's countrified manner and, more to the point, thecountryman's stubborn resistance to theeasy cliché and thoughtless turn of phraseof his urban counterpart. The speaker'svoice, like his nickname "Sandy," conveysa gritty resistance to the self-serving correctnessof liberal culture, in lieu of whichhe speaks only heartfelt if sometimes awkwardtruths.

It is hardly coincidental that the prosecutor'sdecision to bring charges againstEdith is prompted by the unwelcome pryingof a smug young investigative reporterfrom one of the Denver papers. The mediaof our time, after all, trade in a commerceof glib lies and half-truths, peddled in therapid-fire flux of distorted and contextlesswords and images. As James Bowmanwrites in Honor: A History, "news and entertainmenthave grown ever more indistinguishablein the last decade," a factthat Bowman sees as one consequence ofthe rise of "celebrity culture" in place ofthe old honor culture.15 As Bowman seesit, the rise of investigative journalism is amanifestation of contemporary culture'swillingness to subject the private and insome cases trivial details of honorable publiclives to a corrosive cynicism while, atthe same time, excusing all manner of indiscretionand even criminal behavior onthe part of celebrity entertainers. The publicdemands continual entertainment fromits clownish celebrities, but it also delightsin seeing serious and decent individualsbrought down. The spectacle of an eightyyear-old matron on trial for murder is justthe sort of story that melds news and entertainment.In contrast to this inane andmeretricious entertainment, Haruf 's fictionlabors through a narration that depictsgenerations of sacrifice and real consequenceto construct an architecture of taleswhich function as moral fable, patientlyplacing present-day events in the coherentcontext of family and fixed inhabitation.The austere, inhospitable environment ofthe fictionalized Holt County represents auseful corrective to the current appetite forglib journalistic editorializing with its suggestionthat, given the material abundanceof American life, all things come easily as amatter of entitlement, and no fault attachesto any behavior, however mistaken. Bycontrast, Haruf 's vision is more weightyand consequential. As is reflected in theslow, resolute quality of his narration,every action must be weighed with carebecause all actions possess consequencesbeyond our knowing. Recognizing theconsequential nature of our actions, however,is the first step toward salvaging ourimperfect lives.

In this respect, Haruf 's fiction proceedsfrom a profound idealism since it impliesthe possibility of improving the worldthrough the actions of those who taketheir responsibilities and limitations seriously.The kindness of strangers that sooften intercedes to arrest the ugly normalityof abuse or indifference proceeds fromthe recognition that suffering and impairmentare real and that human resourcesare constrained. The abandonment of ateenaged girl by her boyfriend after shebecomes pregnant is, after all, what manyhave come to accept as the norm in contemporarysociety, yet in Plainsong VictoriaRoubideaux is befriended, first by her highschool teacher, Maggie Jones, and then bythe McPheron brothers. It is a small miraclethat such unlikely saviors would stepin to aid the girl, although at the sametime such saving is also a confirmation oflife's absence: the fact that such unlikelymiracles have to be deployed attests to theprevailing callousness of modern society,which is thus redoubled in Haruf 's telling.Our condition of loss is made to seem allthe more inescapable by Haruf 's relianceon quirky acts of charity in which a fewnoble strangers—several of them elderlypersons who do not survive the stories theyinhabit—step in to take the place of familystructures that are found to be wanting.Within these relationships (for example,the relationship of the dying Ida Stearns tothe two Guthrie boys—providing lovingattention in the absence of a mother whohas deserted them to live with her sister inDenver), such a large reliance on privateacts of charity testifies to the collapse ofthe structures of order and belief that Arendtreferred to as the "private realm."

For eons the private realm was ruledby the authority of the pater familias, a figurethat decades of post–Father Knows Bestridicule has rendered laughable but thatfor millennia afforded private life a clearsense of boundaries and purpose equivalentin its way to the authority of traditionand religion within the public realm. Fromthe perspective of contemporary culture,with its demands of maximum personalfreedom and its arrogant rejection of allrestraints on free will, paternal authorityseems an unwelcome holdover fromthe past, yet, as Tennessee Williams understood,those who are dependent on thekindness of strangers rarely end well, andtheir dependence is a gauge of the collapseof normal institutions and authorities. Thecategory of "normality," in any case, haslong ceased to exist outside the Americanheartland, and even here it seems much atrisk. Haruf 's disturbing accounts reveal asociety in which the mutual care of husbandsand wives, children and siblings, andteachers and pupils has been supplanted bythe assumption that essential human needscan be serviced at will by any person oragency. From this abstract and bureaucraticperspective, all human affiliationsare capable of easy replication and substitution,and human expectations, like theserviceable pies that the Holt café dishesup in predictable varieties of apple, cherry,and coconut cream, are reduced to thelevel of function and routine. But in Haruf's fiction, in response to an increasinglynihilistic and disaffected national culture,these old-fashioned virtues continue to beasserted.

A crucial element in this faith is thepresence of caritas, an action of charitythat Diana Postlethwaite mistakenly interpretsas "fundamentally humanistic,this-worldly."16 In fact, Haruf 's novels arereplete with miracles, redemptive acts thatimply more than the kindness of strangersbased on humanistic assumptions, for whatis involved therein is an underlying faith inthe sacredness of life. Among these savingrelationships is that of D. J. Kephart, a forlorn,impoverished waif who lives with hisgrandfather, and Dena Wells, the daughterof a depressed, alcoholic woman separatedfrom her husband. Their condition makesD. J. and Dena representative figures ofcontemporary American children. It is afact, after all, that today three quarters ofAmerican children live in households oftransient, unwed, separated, or divorcedparents who are often unable or unwillingto care for their children. Yet, from theirdistressing condition of insecurity and neglect,D. J. and Dena flee to an abandonedneighborhood shed which they begin tofurnish with discarded furniture, rugs, andother domestic objects of the sort that embodya sense of normality. The shed providesa refuge for them in the context of aharsh, brutal world, but by its very existence,it also serves as evidence of just howdisturbed the social realm has become. Inthe section where Haruf describes the weekof Christmas vacation during which D. J.and Dena huddle together under a thickblanket reading library books and drinkingfrom the thermos of coffee that D. J.brings, the sense of the shed as a refuge ismade explicit. Here is an oasis of happinessand security, as suggested by Haruf 'scomment that "what was happening in thehouses they'd come from seemed, for thatshort time, of little importance."17

The relationship of D. J. and Dena raisesseveral important questions related to theproblematic nature of purposeful actionwithin a society that has largely dismissedthe claims of authority and tradition. Whyshould Dena feel such need to preserve astable family? Why, in the face of all thattheir culture shows them about the "normality"of dysfunction, should D. J. takeresponsibility for Dena, just as he does forhis ailing grandfather? Even as their cultureprovides a safety net of welfare checksand "services," D. J. and Dena sense thatit seems incapable of addressing the realsource of damage. The neglect and abusethat they suffer is, more than anything, theproduct of a permissive, no-fault culture inwhich selfish indifference is excused ratherthan challenged.

Despite the cases of moral indifferencethat Haruf narrates, there remains a ray ofsunshine in his world, although this rayof hope derives largely from the personalengagement of a small remnant who standoutside the mainstream of contemporaryliberal culture. As the general society growsmore and more disaffected, convinced ofthe futility of any action, it is only the resolveof a few individuals that holds thingstogether. From their remote farm seventeenmiles south of the small town of Holt,Colorado, the McPherons are engaged inan effort to preserve a heritage of traditionalvalues: those bedrock values of honesty,loyalty, humility, and hard work thatare central to Haruf 's writing. This visionrelies on the belief that America is indeedthe last best hope of the world—"a shiningcity on a hill," to cite Ronald Reagan'simprovement on John Winthrop's phrasein A Model of Christian Charity. In this visionof our civilization, America is a landin which there still exists the possibility ofindependence and liberty for all; it is a landin which the innate goodness of mankindhas not been corrupted by the necessity ofsubservience and mendacity imposed bya caste system or by ideological tyranny;above all, it is a land in which an ideal ofproductive action still governs the livesof at least a saving remnant. Yet the miraculousopportunities that Winthrop andReagan cited have always been shadowedby an immense burden: in the words ofGovernor Winthrop, that of remainingsteadfast in "this work that we have undertaken"so that God does not "withdrawHis present help from us" and we shall not"be made a story and a byword throughthe world." To a large extent, whether wesucceed or fail in this labor depends on ourfaith in the possibility of purposeful action,whether of an entrepreneurial or politicalor philanthropic sort. The lesson of virtuethat Haruf 's fiction teaches involves arestoration of faith in ourselves and in ourability to shoulder our responsibilities. Ultimately,Haruf is simply asking whetherwe, as a society, care enough to nurturenew life, and whether we care enough tocontinue living ourselves.


  1. Richard Grant, American Nomads: Travels with LostConquistadors, Mountain Men, Cowboys, Indians, Hoboes,and Bullriders (New York: Grove Press, 2003), 62.
  2. Jonathan Miles, "Eventide: Where the Dust MotesGlow," New York Times Book Section (May 23, 2004),E2.
  3. Leszek Kolakowski, "The Revenge of the Sacredin Secular Culture," in Modernity on Endless Trial(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 69.
  4. Czeslaw Miłosz, The Land of Ulro, trans. Louis Iribarne(New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1981), 227–8.
  5. Kent Haruf, Plainsong (New York: Vintage, 2000),112.
  6. Ibid., 113.
  7. Ibid., 78.
  8. Ibid., 113.
  9. Kent Haruf,Eventide (New York: Knopf, 2004), 206.
  10. RussellMartin, "Introduction," in New Writers of the PurpleSage: An Anthology of Contemporary Western Writing(New York: Penguin, 1992), xviii.
  11. Hannah Arendt,"What Is Authority?" in The Portable Hannah Arendt,ed. Peter Baehr (New York: Penguin, 2003), 501.
  12. Mark McCloskey, "Plainsong," in Magill's Literary Annual2000 (Pasadena, CA: Salem Press, 2000), 617.
  13. Kent Haruf, The Tie That Binds (New York: Vintage,2000), 166.
  14. Ibid., 245–6.
  15. James Bowman, Honor:A History (New York: Encounter Books, 2006), 317.
  16. Diana Postlethwaite, "A Healing Melody: KentHaruf 's Unadorned yet Elegant Novel Makes ExtraordinaryMusic Out of the Ordinary Rhythms of DailyLife in a Small Colorado Town," The World and I 15.2(Feb. 2000), 258.
  17. 17 Kent Haruf, Eventide, 180.