Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf
One of the great challenges for an author of fiction must be to make each story stand out from all the others that have gone before it. Certainly, the author of Zion’s Book Club’s selection for October, Our Souls at Night, came up with a unique premise to snag our readers’ interest. Not that everyone found it believable, but as an opening it ranks pretty high! Addie Moore, a lonely widow, goes around the block to a neighbor’s house, Louis Waters, a man she has known for many years. In fact, he’s the widower of one of her friends, and Addie has a proposition for him. She invites him to come to her house at night and sleep in her bed with her, so she has someone with whom to talk before she sleeps. To say the gentleman was taken aback is an understatement, and our readers were also. How abrupt! We couldn’t imagine any of us doing such a thing! Wouldn’t you go the ‘come over for coffee or tea’ route a few times first? But none of us were the character’s age or had lived alone for as long as she had, so we read on.
As we read, we had to get accustomed to Mr. Haruf’s style of writing. The man didn’t believe in quotation marks, so figuring out what dialogue was spoken and what was thought took a bit of time. Amazingly, our brains adapted after a while. Turns out the author, who died soon after completing the book, used a blind, free association style of writing – literally. He wore a cap pulled down over his eyes and wrote without quotes when the muse was strong. This book, especially, had a personal connection for him – he and his wife got together late in life and enjoyed lying in bed and talking.
After some thought, Louis agreed to the proposition and two mature people began to live their lives without being held back by their neighbors’ opinions. In a compact and simple style reminiscent of Hemingway (whom Haruf admitted he admired), while dealing with complex subjects like old age, loneliness, companionship, what binds us together and tears us apart, the author described the roadblocks encountered in a small town where people notice their neighbors’ comings and goings. And then remark on them. He showed how difficult it is to follow your chosen path when the real world, including family, takes notice and judges.
According to some of our readers, the author’s spare prose meant every sentence counted and there was no fluff. One reader likened the book to a senior romance novel, where usually you know who’s going to end up with whom after a few pages. When that didn’t happen here, she felt the book went off the rails and got ‘stupid’. Others felt it was a more accurate depiction of how a small decision can cause ripples in life much like a stone thrown in a pond. In an interesting split along age lines, younger readers found it difficult to believe neighbors would really care if two older people began to sleep together; wasn’t that behavior from the 70’s and 80’s? Neighbors now often don’t know each other and are more accepting of all kinds of behaviors. Zion’s older readers countered with examples from real life where someone, JUST THAT DAY, had remarked about another neighbor’s supposed carrying on. Perhaps small towns haven’t changed that much. Maybe young adults interact more on-line while older adults still talk over the fence in person. All of us understood the wish to keep a new relationship like this one unnoticed for as long as possible until the people in it got comfortable. And it was easy to relate to the need for something new, some companionship. Nights alone can be long.
Then Addie’s son, Gene, who is having problems in his job and with his wife, decides to leave his son with Addie for a while. He is not amused to find Louis spending the night and considers him a competitor for Addie’s money. Louis‘s daughter also chimes in with her concerns. Neither child lives near their parents, but still they feel threatened by this new relationship. Gene (who could be considered the villain in the story) is so focused on his probable inheritance and so completely dismissive of his son’s needs that he greatly irritated our readers. He could not have cared less about the solid base Addie and Louis were giving his son. Even when we learned a couple back stories that explained some of the behavior, nothing could make Gene palatable to us. And why, we asked, should our children expect us to leave them money? Isn’t it OUR money to do with as we want? Yet, thanks to readers with experience in the legal field, we had plenty of real-life examples of children being territorial and throwing wrenches into their parents’ relationships. Money is a great motivator for good or ill. And Gene was willing to use his son as a bargaining chip to force Addie to break off her relationship with Louis.
At this point, some of our readers were annoyed at Addie’s lack of backbone while others could relate to doing whatever was needed for the child to thrive and to keep some semblance of family. Putting someone else’s needs ahead of your own isn’t easy. However, we were all pulling for Addie and Louis to find a way to make their relationship work. The author left the door open for that possibility, but the book’s ending wasn’t the decisive one we wanted. Mr. Haruf packed a lot of emotion and character development into a short book and, to no one’s surprise, a movie has been made from the book starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda. Many readers were inclined to view the movie since these two celebrities didn’t jibe with the mental picture we had of two ordinary people in a small town. But, whether it’s Hollywood magic or the spell of the written word, fiction can still give us a way to come to grips with hard truths and force us to examine our beliefs and priorities. And book clubs can be safe and civilized places to explore how others’ truths and beliefs contrast with our own.
Which is exactly what our voting showed – contrast: We had one reader give the book 2 thumbs up, six give it 1 thumb up, five be neutral, and one give it one thumb down. The wide range of votes made for a great discussion. Next month, we will discuss Keeping Lucy by T. Greenwood. Happy reading!