Fiction writers are big on invention. We may read a hundred books a year that explore the same themes we ourselves are most concerned with, but when it comes to our own work, we want to invent the wheel. The tale that’s never been told. The voice that’s never been heard. The settings that until now have been overlooked and neglected by all the great voices in literature. At times, our entire world hangs in the balance of what we want to believe we are on the edge of creating. Nevertheless, most of us have experienced at least once the rude awakening of the truth about our careers: that the very story we’re struggling so hard to invent has already appeared in someone else’s book.
Such was the case fifteen years ago when I first stumbled on Kent Haruf’s novel,The Tie That Binds.From the opening page I was bereft. Haruf had written the story I was supposed to write, and he’d done a better job of it than I could even imagine. The setting he’d invented for his characters–a small town called Holt on the vast grasslands of eastern Colorado–was so vivid it could claim a spot on the literary map for Haruf just as surely as Yoknapatawpha County had done for Faulker. By fleshing out the every-day, hard-bitten realities of ranch life in crisp, clean, quiet prose, Haruf had legitimized the men and women who know how to survive a landscape that in equal measure nurtures and negates them, and thereby made them heroic. They might not resemble John Wayne, but with their strict adherence to duty, their lonely individualism, their clear-eyed acceptance of hard work, suffering, and self-sacrifice, and their silent but stubborn dignity, they have all the characteristics of Western heros. Here, for example, is how Sanders Roscoe describes The Tie That Binds’ heroine (and his neighbor) Edith Goodnough:
But in the summer of 1922 she must have been just about perfect. She was slim and quick, with brown eyes and curly brown hair. She was woman-breasted. She had strong hands. She was uncomplaining with plenty to complain about. She was … but hell, I don’t know how to describe women. Only look here, this is more what I mean: she was quiet and focused and there for you in a way that didn’t make you feel awkward or clumsy even when you were worse than both of those things, as failing on your feet as a newborn colt, as drunk as a just-dropped calf.
According to Roscoe, Edith clearly has the wherewithal to pursue the American Dream and perhaps even achieve happiness, but instead she chooses to remain where she is–facing a lifetime of brutalizing and monotonous ranch work for a father who is undeniably cruel and a future that seems as flat as the horizon. It’s what she’s been handed in life and she feels it’s where she belongs, and instead of protesting the unfairness of it and fleeing for her life, she steps forward time after time and accepts each problem with stubborn calmness. That she so paradoxically gives her strength for all the right reasons to all the wrong things is a unique feature of the Western hero, a human of near-mythic-sized courage, beauty, and power who must face down even larger realities of loneliness, failure, and loss.
Haruf’s characters, while larger-than-life in heroic terms, are also real people, people who bet against the odds, who believe in a future when the future is lost, who go on waiting for love when they know they’re not going to find it, working for respect when respect is impossible, and digging for gold while drowning in squalor. It is the hopeless paradoxes they’re able to absorb, live by, and die for that make Haruf’s characters so heroic and yet at the same time, so real; and it’s their paradoxical character traits–their close-fisted generosity, niggardly geniality, sour-faced humor, faith in the face of hopelessness, and, as Sanders Roscoe illustrates so beautifully in the above quote describing Edith, their wonderful tongue-tied eloquence–that make them the kind of Western heroes we recognize as human.
Haruf has stayed in Holt, Colorado, throughout his career, and with each novel his focus on Western heroism has become more intricate and profound. In Where You Once Belonged, he shifts his attention to a character named Jack Burdette and the darker, chaotic side of the heroic scale. Like Edith Goodnough in The Tie That Binds, Burdette first appears as a larger-than-life hero (in this case, a football hero, or as Haruf describes him: "a kind of highschool boy’s highschool boy; the supreme example of what was possible in the absolute"), who, having emerged from a bitter childhood, pins his hopes on achieving the American Dream. Unlike Edith, however, Burdette has no interest in morality, showing from the first moment we meet him as a youngster in school a yawning indifference to responsibility, courage, and self-respect. After his first actual brush with the law, he is left not in the least shaken, just more calculating:
It had merely meant that he had to be more careful, a little more circumspect. It never occurred to him that he might want to alter in any real way whatever he wanted to do. I suppose to him it was like a complicated play in football–a double reverse, say, with a fake dive into the middle, by which you could still score, only it would take a little more practice and finesse to do it. It was merely a lesson in subtlety, a brief instruction in the need for secrecy.
For Burdette, being a hero in the eyes of the town means nothing short of being able to take advantage of people, and this he does, dumping his devoted fiancée, robbing his community, running off on his wife and two sons, and then only returning once they find happiness elsewhere, to kidnap them at gun point. His only reason?That they belong to him. Through Burdette’s story, Haruf poses the same questions about heroism that he posed in The Tie That Binds, but this time in real anger. How do we pick our heroes? How much are we willing to grant them, and what happens when they forsake us? The answer is not a happy one.
While Edith, a true heroine who has sacrificed her happiness entirely for an undeserving father and brother, ends up dying in a hospital bed under the accusation of murder, Burdette escapes scot-free, his community more willing to forget about him than to admit they were wrong to call him a hero. Haruf is not asking why Burdette chooses to be evil any more than he asks why Edith Goodnough chooses to be good. What he is asking the reader to consider, however, is why Edith is never acknowledged for her goodness, and in the same vein, why Burdette is so openly allowed to get away with villainy. Against the silent wide-openness of the high grasslands, where an outer confrontation with nature translates all too often into an inner confrontation with the individual self, Haruf defines the role not only of goodness, but of evil, as major factors in the formation and destruction of any community. An old story, to be sure, but by setting these forces loose in such a stark landscape, it is an old story envisioned anew, with characters who, highlighted by the harsh isolation of their environment, become intensified, over-sized portraits of the moral and ethical issues every one of us must face–and the terrible consequences of our actions if we (like Jack Burdette) do not.
Nowhere is the theme of heroism more skillfully explored than in Haruf’s most recent novel, Plainsong.Here, Haruf weaves multiple voices and story lines into a unified whole with the same quiet, unadorned language he’s used elsewhere. ("Here was this man Tom Guthrie," Plainsongbegins.) But as the book moves forward, the stark chapter headings spotlight the characters names, one after another, as if each character were stepping up to the microphone from a dark stage to give a speech before stepping back. Not until the very last chapter, whose title is the name of the town, "Holt," will the camera pull back, allow the lights to go up and the reader to view all the characters at once. By giving us their stories this way, one by one, and by refusing to go either back into the past for explication or forward to the future for reassurance, Haruf shows us heroism in its most amplified and yet paradoxical form, that is, as acts of goodness that are possible for any of us to choose (or not choose) at any time, acts of kindness and bravery that are so commonplace they are usually overlooked and forgotten. InPlainsong it is the children, elderly people, and outcasts who elucidate, for better or worse, the morality of the community they depend on for help. What one person sees as an embarrassment or an opportunity for easy exploitation, another sees as a blessing in disguise, and with a dry, unsentimental eye, Haruf shows us the difference. Ike and Bobby, the two motherless young boys seeking to make sense of their lives, find no help from the adults they come in contact with in town. Many of their paper route customers delight in humiliating them for their ignorance. But not Iva Stearns, an old woman whose need for companionship and dignity is matched only by their need for the same. At the same time, their father, a lonely, burnt-out teacher named Guthrie, begins to grapple with a teenage bully at school, a pregnant teenager is locked out of her home, and an old man falling under the spell of senility becomes increasingly violent. While all these characters struggle for some sense of dignity in their lives, Haruf shows us how their vulnerabilities force those around them to react according to character.
In particular, he gives us Maggie Jones, a school teacher who–contrary to his other major heroines–is presented in the beginning as neither heroic nor larger-than-life, but simply a quiet, unassuming presence who at first seems little more than a minor figure ("a tall healthy dark-haired woman"). By her decisive acts of generosity and understanding, however, Maggie becomes far more than a walk-on character. It is she who pulls Guthrie from his own despair and takes on Victoria Roubideaux, the homeless teenager, helping her to not only understand and accept her future but to believe in herself as well. When she offers Victoria a home pregnancy test, Victoria, balking at the thought of finding out the truth once and for all, answers:
But Mrs. Jones, I don’t know. It seems strange. Deciding about it this way, so definite and you here knowing what I’m doing.
Honey, Maggie Jones said. You got to wake up. It’s time for you to wake up now.
Maggie Jones is the epitome of the true Western hero: clear-eyed, candid, intuitive, courageous, funny, durable, and quiet about it, a heroine who goes completely unrecognized for the daily acts of goodness and generosity that keep her community together. A heroine who every day faces, accepts, and challenges a world of small cruelties performed by people who don’t even realize the damage their own narrow-mindedness can cause. In one of the book’s most moving passages, she scolds the withered old McPheron brothers for their self-contented isolation, saying:
It’s too lonesome out here. Well, look at you. You’re going to die some day without ever having had enough trouble in your life. Not of the right kind anyway. This is your chance.
Because of Maggie and the kindesses she simultaneously hands out and promotes within her community, Plainsong, unlike Haruf’s two previous novels, ends ringing with hope. It is a novel about the power of the unsung hero, about the eventual conquest, whether recognized or not, of light over dark. In the final chapter, it’s Memorial Day, and in spite of the fact that many of the characters who have gathered together for the traditional picnic celebration will face hard times ahead–Maggie’s father is still senile; Guthrie’s still in danger of losing his job; Victoria, now a single mother, still faces her lack of schooling; and there is always a sense that unknown tragedy can occur–Haruf is celebrating the fact that they have realized the importance of coming together, that they have found, despite the continuing chaos in their lives, a source of comfort in each other and a way to continue onward–or as Guthrie so aptly puts it when speaking of his own uncertain future:
I don’t know…. It depends on what comes of it. But I’ll be all right. I’ll do something else if I have to.
Willa Cather once said, "The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman," and nowhere is this truer than in Haruf’s work. Holt, Colorado, is the perfect stage for Haruf to highlight themes of courage, passion, generosity and duty. The fact that they are Western characters speaking simple, unadorned, rusticated language in a lonesome Western setting does not in any way confine them to regional themes. The hard moral and ethical choices they face are undeniably universal and timeless. Set apart out in the middle of the prairies of Colorado, they are outlined and magnified by the enormous, windswept emptiness around them, so that who they are, what they believe in and how they survive becomes suddenly not just another Western story that can delight the reader and dumbfound the starry-eyed neophyte writer who lives for invention, but a story of mythic proportion, and not just a story about a small town in the American West, but a story of universal concern. Our story.