Fiction – paperback; Picador; 248 pages; 2002.
When I first “discovered” American author Kent Haruf last year, I was so enamoured of his 1999 novel Plainsong that I promptly ordered his entire back catalogue. He wasn’t a particularly prolific author, so this meant I only had to buy a handful of titles.
Sadly, he died earlier this month, which is one reason I decided to pull The Tie That Binds from my shelf. First published in 1984, it was Haruf’s debut novel — and what an extraordinary novel it is.
Set in the high plains of Colorado, just seven miles from the fictional town of Holt which features in all of Haruf’s novels, the book tells the tale of a pioneering farming family, the patriarch of which is a rather angry, embittered man called Roy Goodnough who comes from Iowa.
But the story is not about Roy per se nor his delicate wife, Ada, but his daughter, Edith, who is born on the farm and spends her entire life on it, never having had the opportunity to marry or even leave home. When the book opens she’s 80 years old, lying in hospital on an IV drip, with a police guard at the door. She’s been charged with murder, but the reader doesn’t know who she’s murdered — or why.
That’s where our narrator comes in to fill the gaps.
Most of what I’m going to tell you, I know. The rest of it, I believe.
The narrator is Sanders Roscoe and he’s Edith’s neighbour, whom he knows well (once upon a time his father asked Edith to marry him but Roy Goodnough was against it). In his intimate bar-room raconteur voice, Sanders spools right back to the start — before Edith was even born — to explain how events over the course of almost a century led to the current situation.
A domineering father
It’s a beautifully rendered tale that shows how circumstances “fixed” Edith and her younger brother, Lyman, to live quiet, some might say dull, lives under the thumb of a cruel man from whom they could not escape.
Despite the strong sense of community and neighbourliness that surrounds them, the Goodnoughs must get by as best they can — resisting, wherever possible, dependence on anyone else but themselves, and all carried out against the backdrop of a harsh but beautiful landscape.
What they found when they got here — and I don’t believe Ada ever got over the shock of it — was a flat, treeless, dry place that had once belonged to Indians. It was a hell of a big piece of sandy country, with a horizon that in every direction must have seemed then — to someone who didn’t know how to look at this country and before Henry Ford and paved highways diminished it just a little — to reach forever away under a sky in summer that didn’t give much of a good goddamn whether or not the bags of corn seed Roy was going to plant in some of that sand ever amounted to a piddling thing, and a sky in winter that, even if it was as blue as picture books said it should be and as high and bright as anybody could hope for, still didn’t care whether or not the frame house Roy was going to build ever managed to keep the snow from blowing in on Ada’s sewing machine.
Through Sanders lovingly crafted narrative — angry one moment, disbelieving the next, but always fiercely defensive of Edith and her motivations — Haruf depicts the loneliness and hardship of rural life, as well as the untold sacrifices Edith makes for her father and brother. There’s an aching sadness to this grand sweeping drama but it’s tempered by gentle humour, little triumphs and quiet moments of joy. And it shows how one woman’s steely determination and fortitude sustain her through good times and bad.
Like Haruf’s Holt trilogy — Plainsong, Eventide and Benediction — this is a deeply affecting tale, written in precise yet gentle prose, about living on the land. This sympathetic portrayal of an elderly woman who’s led a tough and unremarkable life is by turns heartbreaking and uplifting.
I got so drawn into the intimate narrative that I lost all sense of time; The Tie That Binds is a wonderful novel that deserves a wide readership. If you loved Plainsong, this one won’t disappoint — and if you’ve never read Haruf before, this is the perfect introduction.
17 thoughts on “‘The Tie That Binds’ by Kent Haruf”
Thanks to your review of Plainsong, I started reading Kent Haruf’s books this past year. I too fell in love with his books and his writing. My son just bought me The Ties that Bind and Where you Belong, his earlier books and after reading your review, can’t wait to start them. Thanks again for introducing me to Mr. Haruf.
Thanks for your comment, Antoinette, so glad to have introduced you to Kent Haruf, he’s such a brilliant writer. I almost think this particular book is better than Plainsong! I, too, have Where You Belong and will save it up …
Kent Haruf sounds like a writer I need to add to my list! Nice review!
Oh, please do add him to your list, Naomi. His novels are gentle and wise, but draw you in to a complete world.
I still have two of the trilogy to go, but am delighted to read that further exploration of Haruf’s work is rewarding. And yes that cover looks just like my part of the world, even if we are somewhat further north.
I love the cover of this novel, so how wonderful to live/come from a part of the world that looks similiar, Kevin. And yes, I can testify that Kent Haruf’s entire backlist is worth exploring. I suspect this one would fit your definition of a frontier novel (what I call a pioneer novel), so I’m pretty confident you’d like it a lot.
Oh, I didn’t know that he had died! What a shame. I, too, enjoy his books. He has such a lovely way of portraying ordinary people in a way that is extraordinary!
Yes, very sad. Apparently he delivered his last manuscript shortly before he died, so there will be one more novel to look forward to in 2015. Admittedly, it will feel a little bittersweet.
One of my favourite authors – such spare, beautiful writing. I read Benediction earlier this year and wondered if it had been coloured by knowledge of his own imminent death when it was announced. Delighted to hear that there will be one more novel to come.
I read Benediction earlier this year and loved it (though strangely the story hasnt really stayed with me). I must have missed the news about his imminent death but it would explain why he couldnt attend the Folio Prize announcement and why a proposed Triple Choice Tuesday never eventuated (his UK publicist was trying to sort one for me).
That would have been so interesting.
This was one of my favorite books of 2014 from one of my all-time favorite authors. I am so very sad that he is gone, but happy to know there will be one final book from him. Happy New Year to you, Kim!
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It’s made my end of year list too… such a great read… so evocative of time and place and people.
Happy New Year to you as well x