I admire Kent Haruf’s writing greatly, so when I found a copy of his first novel, The Tie That Binds in a second-hand bookshop in Chichester recently I did not hesitate to buy it. I am not alone in my admiration. I was first introduced to his novels by my co-author Eileen. And I was pleased to find that another hero, Ursula le Guin, also rated him very highly. Not quite as polished as his later novels, and a little drawn out in places, I nevertheless found myself gripped by this story of attrition on a farm in Holt, Colorado.
The Tie That Binds
Edith Goodenough (pronounced Good-no) is eighty years old and in hospital, guarded by a police officer, likely to face a charge of murder if she survives. It is 1977. A newspaper man from Denver finds her neighbour Sanders Roscoe and wants some quick, juicy information to flesh out what the police chief has told him. Sanders send him away, because it is impossible to understand Edith without going back to 1896, the year Edith’s parents moved from Iowa to Holt, Colorado, and the year before her birth.
Hating the flashy, quick story of a newspaper, Sanders Roscoe offers to tell us about Edith as if we were across the table from him, drinking our coffee as we listened.
… if a person just wanted to sit down quiet in that chair across the table from me and, since it’s Sunday afternoon, just drink his coffee while I talked, and then if he didn’t want to rush me too much – well, then, I could tell it. I would tell it so it would be all, and I would tell it so it would be right.
Because listen: (13)
We are told of the long connection between the Goodenough and the Roscoe families, from the time that Roy moved with his wife from Iowa to the farm near Holt, Colorado. It is a sad story of Edith, born to a deeply unhappy mother and a domineering father. She had a brother Lyman. The families were neighbours, but as Mrs Roscoe was of first nation descent they kept apart until Mrs Goodenough needed help in childbirth.
After the death of their mother, Edith and Lyman are exploited by their father to help him run the farm. Roy suffers a horrendous machinery accident in which he loses most of his fingers. He becomes dependent upon Edith and her brother to manage the farm. After the old man cuts off his remaining fingers Lyman runs off to see the world. The Roscoe’s son, father of the narrator, must offer help to protect Edith, with whom he is in love. Edith refused to leave her disabled father to marry him. She is bound to him.
Lyman sends back postcards from his travels around the US and an annual wodge of $20 bills to Edith, but he is away for twenty or so years. Roy Goodnough eventually dies. And when his father dies Sanders takes over helping Edith, despite going through a very wild patch himself. The Roscoes are bound as neighbours to provide help.
When Lyman eventually returns, he and his sister have six good years together before he gets dementia. When Edith can no longer manage her brother she plans a violent and final escape from the farm.
There is much in this story about neighbourliness, community, hardships of farming, growth of the town. But through it runs the requirements of duty, the tie that binds: duty to parents, family and neighbours. All the sympathetic characters understand this, none more than Edith who believes in this very strongly and sacrifices her own happiness and eventual safety to duty.
By beginning the story more than seventy years before the drama that the newspaper reporter wanted to capture, Sanders Roscoe is providing a long and deep context for Edith’s actions.
Born in 1943, Kent Haruf was 41 before he published The Tie That Binds, his first novel. He had taken on many different jobs in that time, no doubt providing him with insights into the people of Holt, Colorado which was the setting of all six of his novels.
Writing in her essay in his praise Ursula Le Guin noted that he lived far from the glamour of New York so that he could avoid all the publicity hooha and ideas about literary success:
… he could go on stubbornly being Kent Haruf, doing his job, keeping his defences up. He could go on writing about how hard it is to go on doing what you see as right when you aren’t sure how to do it, or even whether it’s right – how hard we are on one another and ourselves, how hard most of us work, how much we long for and how little we mostly settle for. [p234 from Kent Haruf: Our Souls at Night in Words are my Matter]
The theme she identifies here is appropriate to Edith Goodnough. And also, perhaps, to Sanders Roscoe. It’s hard, this life.
Sanders Roscoe tells his story in a leisurely Sunday afternoon fashion, and in colloquial terms and with engaging detail about the characters. and with real love for Edith. He manages to convey the attrition of Edith’s life, as well as her pleasures and the depth of their friendship.
The Tie That Binds by Kent Haruf, first published in the US in 1984 and by Picador in the UK in 2002. 246pp
Related Posts on Bookword
Eventide by Kent Haruf from May 2021
Plainsong by Kent Haruf from September 2018
Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf from June 2017
He also wrote Benediction and Where you once Belonged.