by Kent Haruf
Dad Lewis is dying. He and his wife of more than fifty years have just been told by Dad’s doctor that his cancer has spread through his body and is terminal. He will likely not last out the summer. As he steadily declines, the world keeps turning, the sun continues to rise and set every day, and the lives around him go on, with all of their dramas and heartbreaks, large and small. And isn’t that the way of things? Time never stops creeping forward, and one person’s decline towards death is insignificant in the larger context of the world, but everything within the intimate space of a family and a community.
The story is populated by a small parade of characters come in and out of focus: Mary Lewis, Dad’s wife, tender-hearted and utterly devoted; Lorraine, their middle-aged daughter, who has never gotten over the death of her teenaged daughter years previous; Berta Mae, the elderly woman who has lived next door to the Lewises for as long as anyone can remember; Alice, Beta Mae’s eight-year old granddaughter who has lost her own mother to breast cancer and has been taken in by Berta Mae; Reverend Lyle, the young, new preacher in town who has a strained relationship with his wife and son and ideas that the townspeople can’t accept; Willa and Alene Johnson, and elderly woman and her not-quite-elderly daughter who are each dealing with their own disappointments; and Frank, the Lewises’ son from whom they have been estranged for many years, and who is only present in flashbacks. As Dad (so nicknamed decades before when he became a father) lays dying, more than his life flashing before him, regrets flash before him, slowly and steadily.
There are some books that leave me crying at the end; this one had me crying at the beginning. There is a scene in the opening pages, shortly after Dad and Mary learn that he is terminal, when Mary collapses from exhaustion. The depth of Dad’s distress and concern for his old, ailing wife just did me in. There are so many scenes throughout the book – another in which the old Johnson women, middle-aged Lorraine, and young Alice go skinny dipping in a stock tank – I know it sounds like it would be a hilarious scene, but it was so moving, the tears were just flowing.
Kent Haruf is one of the very best authors I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading; I have read all of his books except two, and have loved every one of them. This one is no exception. Tender and stark, a story about life and living every bit as much as it is about death and dying.
Five big, fat stars.