Benediction by Kent Haruf: a review of the best book you haven’t yet read

Benediction by Kent Haruf: a review of the best book you haven’t yet read

Dad Lewis is dying. In fact, he’ll be dead by the end of the summer. You might think that basing a novel on one man’s quiet decline is a hard act to pull off, especially when nothing much else happens. Within the pages of Benediction by Kent Haruf, however, you are drawn completely into the world of Holt, a small town in Colorado. You live the summer with Dad and those around him and you remember that true drama comes from the everyday.

Benediction: Kent Haruf


A benediction is ‘a short invocation for divine help, blessing and guidance, usually at the end of worship service’, and endings are all around us here. Benediction is itself the third volume of a trilogy (the others being Plainsong and Eventide), and the most obvious ending within the novel is that of Dad himself. Then there are the ends of relationships, of vocations; of a way of life and, of course, of the summer itself. But these are but small ripples in the onward life of the town, and around them all is the endlessness of the prairie: wide, unchanging in its essentials and oblivious to the emotions of those who have settled in its folds.

You’ll not read this book for the thrills, although the narrative encompasses violence, betrayal, bigotry, sex and suicide. The extremely short chapters move us through the prism of many perspectives, although all come through the lens of an omniscient narrator. The sentences are also short, and there’s little in the way of punctuation. Like Cormac McCarthy, the dialogue is left bare, the words slipping across the pages with a deceptive simplicity. The effect is to allow us, as readers, to immerse ourselves into world of Holt. We’re not told what to think. The voices, unemphasised by authorial direction, take on more life than in many a more carefully coloured book.

It’s a very American book, though not in the least in the Grand American Novel sense. Dad has his roots in the Depression, and he’s one of those who took the opportunity in the land of the free to better himself. There is the small town intolerance of homosexuality, both from an earlier time (the absent son, Frank) and now (opprobrium heaped on Rev Lyle for his support ‘of some other preacher in Denver who came out as a homosexual.’) The churches are important, but only if they say the right things. Patriotism trumps all other considerations. We see this through the eyes of characters who question the standard lines, even if they are often resigned to living within them. As Dad grows weaker, he revisits decisions he has made and questions himself. It is the absent Frank, the son who has suffered the most from intolerance, who acts as judge in Dad’s interior trial. He offers no benediction.

It’s also a universal book, an everyday book. Much is passed on through unpunctuated dialogue, chronicling the mundane. The characters sit down, they eat, they drive. The unexpected is often unemphasised. I was nevertheless gripped by the pace, perhaps because there were so few markers to tell me what to feel, whilst at the same time always aware of the inevitability of approaching death. The chapter where Dad dies is one of the most beautiful and touching passages I have ever read, suffused with love and the rewards of a long and faithful life. I cried like a baby.

And it’s very much a prairie book. The Colorado of Haruf is just a hop and a skip away from the Minnesota of Garrison Keillor, and the Iowa of Marilynne Robinson, with the open spaces of McCarthy’s Texas just the other side of the Oklahoma panhandle. The name makes me think of Robinson: a single word, vaguely Biblical. There’s a lot more light in Haruf, though, more space between the words. But we have the life lived in a single place, the misunderstandings and the approach of death. There are the absent sons, the unhappy daughters; the secrets, the regrets. And there’s also the interconnectedness of community from Keillor’s Lake Woebegone, McCarthy’s inner isolation. And always the waving grasses of the prairie. Dad goes to see it, to say goodbye:

 There were more hills to the east and south, the town far distant to the north, with the grain elevators white above the green of the mass of trees, and elsewhere all the flat open space.


grain elevators 2

Read this. Then go on and read the others. I say that with perfect confidence, even though I’ve deliberately not read them myself yet. I wanted to keep this one unclouded by cross-reference, but Plainsong is on my Kindle and is calling out to me. I know it’s going to be good.


If you Google ‘Kent Haruf’, there are loads of reviews and interviews in the US press. Not so many in the UK yet, but click here for a link to an interview in The Independent. And there’s a very warm and folksy Facebook page here.

Picador are the UK publishers of Benediction, and you can find out more here.


  1. Brian
    12 Nov 2014

    Nice review, enough so that I picked it from among several others to post with a library book club announcement on our Facebook page (Peterborough, NH Town Library; let me know if you have any problem with that). For my part, I also read the three books out of order, and it did not adversely affect my enjoyment or understanding of them, however, sounds like I was a little more impatient than you and jumped quickly from Eventide to Plainsong, and eagerly read Benediction as soon as it came out. Hope you enjoyed those other books, and keep up the good work! — Brian

    • Sarah
      18 Nov 2014

      Hi Brian, thanks so much, that’s lovely! And I’m delighted for it to be shared on your Facebook page. My own debut novel comes out in the UK next summer, and is currently awaiting results from submission to US editors. I’ll let you know if it’s picked up by any of them!

      Hope the reading group enjoys Haruf as much as I did,

      Best wishes,

  2. Linda Hill
    18 May 2015

    A beautifully written review for what looks like a beautifully written book. I shall be getting a copy as soon as I can.

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