Kent Haruf


(reviewed by Mary Whipple MAY 15, 2004)

"There was one time in the afternoon [at the cattle auction] when Harold, sitting up in his seat above the sale ring, began to bid on a pen of butcher cows. After he bid a second time Raymond turned to look at him. Was that you? He [the auctioneer] thought that was you trying to bid on them.

It was.

Well what the hell are you doing?

Nothing. Having a little fun.

We don't need no more cattle. We're trying to sell some here today.

I ain't going to buy any. I'm just having some fun raising the price for somebody else…We got to have some fun, don't we?…We got to have some kind of enjoyment in life."

Anyone who loved Plainsong has a lovely treat in store with this follow-up to that National Book Award-nominated novel. Like Plainsong, which was described by the National Book Award Committee as "a novel of wisdom and grace—a narrative that builds in strength and feeling," this novel, too, is a warm and heart-tugging study of the hard-scrabble residents of a small town in the High Plains of Colorado. Polished, often subtle, and deliberately simple, the novel is full of the love and travail, the effort and failure, and the kindness and cruelty that fill the lives of Haruf's plainspoken, often endearing, characters.

Picking up the action almost three years after Plainsong has concluded, author Haruf once again centers his novel on the lives of the McPheron brothers, Raymond and Harold, who provided a home on their ranch for Victoria Roubideaux, a scared and pregnant teenager, so she could have her baby and find some peace. Now a confident college student with a two-year-old daughter who adores the two old ranchers, Victoria has moved to the college campus, a hundred or so miles away from her mentors, returning to the ranch as often as necessary to help them and to refresh her (and their) spirits.

In Eventide Haruf introduces three additional families to the McPherons' story, deftly juggling and sometimes overlapping the four family stories. Luther and Betty June Wallace are some of Haruf's neediest and most beautifully drawn characters. Through the carefully selected details of their lives, the comments they make, and the difficulties they have in seeing priorities, the reader understands that the Wallace adults are extremely limited in their abilities, though Haruf never says outright that they are mentally handicapped. Their two children, lonely waifs who have not had even the most basic help or intellectual stimulation as tots, seem to be of normal intelligence, though they are often picked on by their schoolmates, against whom they have no defenses and have no adult support. The parents themselves receive assistance in everything from how to budget their small income by using envelopes for some of their fixed costs each month, to parenting classes, anger management, and counseling with a social worker about how to keep their trailer clean.

DJ Kephart, a small eleven-year-old whose responsibilities make him seem much older than his years, is the orphaned son of a single mother, now living in Holt with his elderly, often bed-ridden, grandfather, for whom he does all the cooking, cleaning, and laundry. A good boy, he is also a conscientious student with an ingrained sense of right and wrong. He and his neighborhood friends, Dena and Emma Wells, spend any free time they have after school turning an abandoned shed into a playhouse. Since the father of the Wells children is working in Alaska, they and DJ create a make-believe home life where adults do not intrude.

Then separate acts of fate, involving each of the four families, upend all their lives and set in motion a series of events which will change them forever and bring some of them together. Harold and Raymond McPheron have a terrible ranch accident which leaves Raymond hospitalized. Tom Guthrie, a nearby rancher, and Maggie Jones with whom he shares his life (both of whom also appeared in Plainsong), help on the ranch until he gets out of the hospital and back on his feet, and Victoria returns from school temporarily to help him recover. DJ's grandfather gets pneumonia and shares a room in the hospital with Raymond while he is recovering from his injuries, and Raymond befriends DJ, who is visiting his grandfather. When Mary Wells's husband calls to tell her that he will not be returning to Colorado from Alaska, she loses total control of her life, allowing herself to be swept along by circumstances, providing little guidance for her daughters, and ultimately causing a serious traffic accident. The Wallace children are severely abused by Betty's uncle, Hoyt Raines, a sadist who makes them virtual prisoners in their own trailer, and when Hoyt later becomes violent in town, DJ and his grandfather find themselves squaring off against him.

Haruf is a consummate master at evoking emotion. The sad, sweet departure of Victoria for college is poignant not just for the two elderly McPheron brothers but for the reader, too, while the bullying of the Wallace children at school, the beating they suffer at the hands of their uncle, and their stoic tolerance of this abuse are heart-rending. Haruf is effective, too, in conveying the essential innocence of Betty and Luther Wallace and the reader is inevitably drawn into their struggles, hoping for their eventual success at the same time that s/he realizes that they can never be successful without help from others. And when Raymond prays that there will be cattle in heaven for him and his brother to tend, the author reveals not only Raymond's simple view of life but also the depth of the brothers' devotion to each other, to their ranch, and to their land.

Using dialogue to reveal the characters' hearts, Haruf creates dozens of brilliant moments of warmth and tenderness, and when Tom Guthrie and Maggie Jones encourage Raymond to attend a local dance, where he converses with a woman for the first time, the delicacy and sweetness of the moment rings true. When DJ accompanies his grandfather to a tavern so the old man can socialize and then leaves him at a table and goes alone to sit alone at the bar so he can do his homework, DJ's essential goodness and love for the old man shine through. When Raymond holds Victoria's two-year-old daughter Katie on his lap and talks to her as he feeds her, this gruff, old man reveals emotion that would not come from mere description alone.

Vibrant, almost lyrical, descriptions of the land and nature are balanced by images of hard winters and the sudden emergencies that arise on a ranch, and every scene of tenderness and love is juxtaposed against scenes of brutality and cruelty. The benign innocence of the McPherons, whose fierce loyalty and devotion to the ranch make them tireless workers, is balanced against the innocence of the Wallaces, who live in a world they do not fully understand and cannot really cope with. The willingness of DJ Kephart and Raymond McPheron to postpone or not even consider the idea of fun in the context of their difficult lives is the opposite of what we see with cruel school children and Hoyt Raines, who turn even cruelty into a form of pleasure. Without being didactic, Haruf reveals home truths and a kind of world view that is both consistent with the natural setting and thoughtful in its vision of what it takes to survive in this world.

Acts of fate and disasters are, in Raymond's simple terms, "things you don't get over," but as he notes while he is separating the cows from their calves on the ranch, "Every living thing in this world gets weaned eventually." Life can be cruel, fate can be capricious, and children are at the mercy of adults, but Haruf's characters soldier on, somehow, with the reader right beside them, heartstrings thrumming.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 82 reviews

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About the Author:

Kent HarufKent Haruf grew up on the high plains of northeastern Colorado, where his novels are set. His father was a Methodist preacher and the family moved frequently. He received his B.A. from Nebreska Wesleyan University in 1965 and an MFA from The University of Iowa in 1973. He served in the Peace Corps in Turkey, teaching English as a second language. He has worked at a variety of places including a chicken ranch in Colorado, the Royal Gorge in the Rocky Mountains, a construction site in Wyoming, the railroad tracks in southeastern Montana, a pest control company in Kansas, a rehabilitation hospital in Denver, an orphanage in Montana, a surgery wing in a hospital in Phoenix, a presidential library in Iowa, an alternative high school in Wisconsin, a country school in Colorado, and a college in Nebraska.

Haruf was 41 before his first piece of fiction was published.

Kent Haruf’s honors include a Whiting Foundation Award and a special citation from the PEN/Hemingway Foundation. His novel Plainsong won the Mountains & Plains Booksellers Award, the Maria Thomas Award in Fiction and was a finalist for the National Book Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the New Yorker Book Award.

In 1991 Haruf took a position teaching fiction writing to graduates and undergraduates at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He is now retired and lives with his wife, Cathy, in Sedelia, Colorado. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014