Kent Haruf & Sheila Kohler

Haruf_benedictionQuiet, muted, spare, understated … all are words that describe Kent Haruf’s work. As someone in whom none of those qualities is found, it shocks me how much I liked Benediction. Add to that the fact that the book is about an elderly man dying of terminal cancer, my enthusiasm for this book surprises me even more. I picked it up and put it down several times before launching in thinking I just couldn’t handle such a downer.

Haruf makes this story compelling and engaging right from the get-go when Dad Lewis, the protagonist, decides, after getting his terminal diagnosis, “I might get me some better kind of beer before I go. A guy I was talking to said something about Belgian beer. Maybe I’ll try some of that.” Good decision, Dad.

The owner of a small town hardware store in the flatlands of eastern Colorado, Dad has always prided himself on being an upstanding, ethical citizen. Haruf’s characters are multidimensional and Dad’s rigidity has had some serious consequences, with his estranged gay son and with a former employee he effectively banishes from town. A new preacher in town with controversial politics further riles up the close community. There’s a surprisingly large cast of characters in this book but it never feels crowded due to Haruf’s effective descriptive powers.

His elderly neighbor Berta May takes in her orphaned young granddaughter who acts as the antidote for the unfulfilled longing and disappointment felt by several of the major female characters. The scene where four generations of women skinny dip in the stock tank on a hot airless summer day is one of the sweetest I’ve read in recent memory, affectionate, playful and full of vivid images.

Haruf’s measured stye makes the love and community we find in Benediction deep and affecting without ever being sentimental. He’s often compared to Hemingway no doubt for his economic style. I’d agree with one critic who calls him that to “Hemingway with soul.”

What is it about memoirs from South African women? I’ve loved everything from Alexandra Fuller, especially Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight.

Kohler_sistersAnd I absolutely gobbled up South African-born Sheila Kohler’s Once We Were Sisters, about the death (she says murder) of her beloved sister Maxine.

The Kohler sisters lead a monied life of privilege starting in South Africa and extending to Paris, New York and Rome. But they’re poor little rich girls owing to the early death of their distant father and a mother who’s pretty consistently from hell.

What makes this book shine is somewhere along the way (actually at a writing program at Columbia) Sheila Kohler really learned how to write, the craft of telling her story effectively. And there’s lot to tell: her sister’s marriage to a horrific heart transplant surgeon who worked for Dr. Christian Barnard is the stuff of nightmares, kept quiet in the still sexist, appearances-conscious world of pre-Mandela South Africa. There are several points at which the reader wants to scream “Why doesn’t someone DO something?” The more than equally horrific racial injustice is, of course, here as well, but it’s something of a backdrop to the main story.

The love between the Kohler sisters shimmers.