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[484] The Tie That Binds – Kent Haruf

” She didn’t even go those seven miles into Holt very often. She stayed home. Jesus, that’s about all you can say: Edith Goodnough stayed home. And if you figure it up, if you do your arithmetic from those chiseled dates in the cemetery, then you know Edith was seventeen when her mother died in 1914; she was fifty-five when the old man died in 1952; and she was sixty-four when Lyman finally returned in 1961. It amounts to a lifetime of staying home. ” (Ch. 6, p.111)

The Tie That Binds is a novel of bleak simplicity, it’s almost as stark as the Colorado prairie in which it takes place. Haruf’s debut novel opens with a scene that is reminiscent of a mystery: Eighty-year-old Edith Goodnough lies in a hospital bed, IV taped to the back of her hand, police at the door. She is charged with murder. But the story, written in first person and told by rancher Sanders Roscoe, whose parents have been neighbor to the Goodnoughs for over half a century, is more human than most I have read. It begins before Edith Goodnough is born. The lives of the two families intertwine; their story assaults the reader slowly but it sneaks up on me very steadily, as Edith lives out her very constricted life.

She was completely alone. My dad had died; her father was finally dead, and Lyman was still back east somewhere, seeing cities. So it was not just for an afternoon or a month that she was alone, but for one year after another, on and on, with no particular reason for believing it would ever be one jot different. (Ch.8, p.155)

Edith and Lyman are brother and sister raised on the farm. Their mother died young. Their father, Roy Goodnough, is an ornery cuss who treats his family like possessions. An accident that renders him crippled has fixed Edith and Lyman for good. They are stuck clear up to their chins with the ranch. The bombing of Pearl Harbor was a timely calling for Lyman, who decided to join the army. Instead of being drafted, he ended up traveling around the country—for twenty years, avoiding home altogether. The responsibility on the ranch falls onto Edith, who forsakes a deep and true love (Sanders’ father John Roscoe has a romantic attachment to her) to care for her physically maimed and emotionally abusive father. Throughout the novel, Edith is seen as someone who is quiet and focused, continuing to endure by plain courage, determination, and a clear eye to duty. After the old man passed, her brother returned home, increasingly senile. When he was afflicted by a nervous breakdown, she assumed the same role as care-giver—her whole life is sealed with a series of ruts.

If you didn’t know them, you might have believed they were an old couple who still had reason to ride a Ferris wheel together. I hold that picture in mind. Ch.9, p.195)

The Tie That Binds exudes an elegiac sense as Haruf’s unadorned prose guides me through the lives of the Goodnoughs and the stoic truths of middle America landscapes. The interaction between the Roscoes and Goodnoughs evokes the simple decency of human beings, whereas Edith’s uncomplaining nature is an impeccable show of the tenacity of human spirit. The style is completely different from that in Plainsong, since it focuses primarily on one character, as seen from the perspective of a neighbor who has always been there. The language is spare but deep, steering away from sentimentality. This is a very quiet novel that contemplates the austerity and constriction of life.

246 pp. Vintage Contemporaries. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Back-to-back Haruf

Every once in a while comes a novel that is so remarkable in its quality that it stands out not only as an example of what literature (well-written fiction) should be, but also as a satisfying reading experience all by itself. Stoner is one, Crossing to Safety is another. Kent Haruf is the latest to join the league of John Williams and Wallace Stegner in my book. As soon as I turned the last page of Plainsong (more like finishing the review of the book), I got my hands on Haruf’s debut novel, The Tie That Binds. Haruf’s style is quiet and contemplative, his prose spare but the language is deep. Haruf steers clear of sentimentality and melodrama while constructing a taut narrative in which the revelations of characters and their rising emotional tensions are held at perfect balance. In The Tie That Binds, the story is told in first person narrative. The neighbor unfolds the story of a woman who sacrifices her happiness in the name of her family.

Well, no, not nothing exactly. She didn’t just do nothing all that time. But she sure God didn’t go traveling off across the North American continent, either. She didn’t even go those seven miles into Holt very often. She stayed home. Jesus, that’s about all you can say: Edith Goodnough stayed home. And if you figure it up, if you do your arithmetic from those chiseled dates in the cemetery, then you know Edith was seventeen when her mother died in 1914; she was fifty-five when the old man died in 1952; and she was sixty-four when Lyman finally returned in 1961. It amounts to a lifetime of staying home. (Ch. 6, p.111)

Like Stegner, Haruf explores the lives of people who work the land in the stark America Middle West. He captures people and their lives, with a sense of dignity and tenacity of spirits. How can I not love Haruf?