Journalist Max Liu went to Colorado to meet Kent Haruf and explore the landscape of his novels Plainsong, Eventide and Benediction. All photos (c) Max Liu.
by Max Liu
The fictional county of Holt, where Kent Haruf’s novels are set, is in Eastern Colorado. He lives in Salida, a small town about two hours from where we met in Colorado Springs, so I appreciated him coming out to discuss his novel, Benediction, and showing me around the plains. His pride and fascination with the natural landscape of his home state was palpable but he doesn’t idealise it: ‘This country isn’t pretty,’ he’s written, ‘but it’s beautiful.’
A road through the plains
In Benediction, a character who arrives in Holt from Denver is surprised to find that rain is cherished. Now I know why: the terrain is very dry and the short-grass prairie we visited receives only fourteen inches of precipitation per year, including melted snow which trickles down from the Rocky Mountains. It’s very difficult to grow anything or graze animals and any trees have been planted.
Cattle on a ranch
When we arrived at a cattle ranch, however, I asked if it was the kind that the McPheron brothers owned in Plainsong and Eventide. ‘That’s right,’ Haruf said. ‘A red barn and white farmhouse.’ I was moved when Haruf pointed out an abandoned homestead which, he said, probably dated from the late nineteenth century. I live amongst older buildings in England but there was something visceral about looking upon those blackened walls, trying to imagine the endeavour that occurred in there.
An abandoned homestead
I asked Haruf if he’d read Jonathan Raban’s Badland, which explores nineteenth century settlers’ struggle to survive in Montana, and he said that his ancestors came from Germany to the badlands of North Dakota. In Benediction, Dad Lewis dreams about his mother, ‘the uninflected woman’ who wears a taped-up wedding ring and grey dress. The scene provides an insight in to Dad’s poverty-stricken upbringing and, as Haruf told me about his ancestors, I wondered if he’d conjured Dad’s mother as a tribute.
Red barns through the trees
Exploring the plains with a writer whose work I’ve admired for many years was thrilling. We discussed his hero, William Faulkner, and I mentioned that I’d read The Bear on the plane from London to Denver because I heard that it was one of Haruf’s favourite works. Faulkner at several thousand feet was discombobulating and, after several hours, I peered out of the window, saw what looked like water. ‘That’s the Mississippi River, a flight attendant said. When I recounted this coincidence to Haruf the next day, he said: ‘Oh that’s perfect.‘ The Bear, he explained, alerted him to the possibilities of fiction when he was starting out and he reads the story every year.
Yucca on the plains
His enthusiasm for literature and landscape are infectious. Many aspects of the plains are alien to visitors from England – homesteads, soapweed (Haruf’s readers know he favours this evocative term over the common ‘Yucca’), buffalo grass – but the experience has made me look more closely at the natural world around me.
A bleak view of the Rockies
‘One more thing,’ Haruf said before we parted. ‘My name is pronounced “Haruf”.’ He demonstrated, relaxing the ‘u’, adding: “It rhymes with ‘Sherriff’”. Later it rained but not for long.