Beware the dreaded sequel. Generally true, but not in this case.
Colorado author Kent Haruf follows the tremendous success of his 1999 novel Plainsong with Eventide, due to be released on May 4. Plainsong, set on the northeastern Colorado plains in the fictional town of Holt, introduced readers to an unforgettable cast of characters: school teacher Tom Guthrie and his sons Bobby and Ike; crusty old reclusive ranching brothers Raymond and Harold McPheron; Victoria Roubideaux, the pregnant teenager who changes the McPheron's lives. These characters and an expanded cast inhabit Eventide, a darker book than its predecessor, focusing on all that everyone knows and doesn't know about his neighbor in small-town, rural America.
Holt contains much that Haruf learned growing up in small, northeastern Colorado towns. Here, we meet Betty and Luther, a mentally disabled couple raising a couple of kids. They can't escape their bad luck, poverty and a dangerous uncle who haunts them and their children when he's on an alcoholic bender. Assisting them is Rose, a widowed social worker torn between what's fair and what will hopefully save the children. A second set of subplots involves an orphaned boy living with his grandfather, caring for their basic needs, and a neighbor woman whose husband takes off for Alaska never to return. As the woman tries to figure out what to do with her life, her two daughters are left to their own devices, including setting up a secret hideout with the neighbor boy. The third subplot focuses on Raymond and Harold McPheron, their lives following Victoria Roubideaux's departure for college in Fort Collins, and the task of making friends in town after a lifetime of extreme isolation.
Haruf's uncanny ability to stay out of his characters' way is evident again in Eventide. What comes out of their mouths, whether it is kind, mean, ignorant, confused, intelligent or clouded by loneliness, is true and hard, spare as life on the plains. Violence, too, is depicted as naturally and forcefully as a tornado ripping through a quiet countryside. It's force and direction are inevitable, tearing apart lives and leaving behind a shameful mess.
Some of the subplots work better than others. Raymond McPheron is the soul of the book and every scene of his is transcendent. The abandoned wife and her daughters are less effective -- overlooked to a degree by the author as he focuses elsewhere.
But like Plainsong -- which went on to be nominated for the National Book Award, the L.A. Times Book Award and the New Yorker Book Award, and to win the Mountains and Plains Booksellers Award -- Eventide depicts a time, a place and its people so sincerely and so compellingly drawn, with moments of such rare beauty, that the reader cannot walk away.
Hallmark has adapted Plainsong as a made-for-TV movie and, as expected, has cornponed it up, framing Holt and its inhabitants in shades of golden-brown and pleasant small-town hickdom. That's a shame, unless it gets more Americans to read both Plainsong and its sequel. Haruf spares his readers small-town sentimentality, insisting that all types of human drama exist there, just as they do in the city. It's Hollywood that can't deal authentically with rural America, not this Colorado author with his quiet voice and sage vision.
-- Kathryn Eastburn
Read the Independent's June 2000 interview with Kent Haruf at
Eventide by Kent Haruf (Alfred A. Knopf: New York) $24.95/hardcover Release date: May 4