Where You Once Belonged by Kent Haruf Review

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Where You Once Belonged explores the transformation of the book's anti-hero, Jack Burdette, from a small-town football star to a hard core criminal. How does an over-sized punk in a small town become a criminal? In a small-town like Holt, Colorado, can such a person ever be welcomed back into the community?

Haruf's novel uses few, well-chosen words to carve out a heartbreaking depiction of a character who is almost, but only almost, sympathetic. Haruf's characteristic prose style has been described as taut, controlled, and spare. But the simplicity of Haruf's style is deceptive—like haiku or Hemingway. Kent Haruf has become one of my favorite novelists of recent years, but unlike his debut novels, Plainsong and Eventide, which are picaresque novels that celebrate small town life, this novel looks into the dirty laundry of small town life that people in small towns everywhere would prefer to keep in the closet.

Where You Once Belonged is Haruf's second novel about small town Holt, Colorado, on the high plains west of Denver, following his highly acclaimed Plainsong. In this second novel, the central character is Jack Burdette. Born on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks to an irresponsible father and an emotionally withdrawn mother, Burdett's behavior is one part nature and three parts nurture. Yet Burdette's progression into manhood under these unfortunate circumstances isn't depicted in a sympathetic light.

Haruf introduces Burdette early in the novel as a sort of unwelcome prodigal son, returning to Holt after 8 years absence in a cherry-red convertible. Burdette's return is an outrage. When the local sherriff encounters Burdette, we learn that whatever he's done has criminal implications, because Burdette claims the law can't touch him; he's consulted with an attorney. Burdette's return incites anger and tension among the townspeople, giving the reader a sense that Holt is on the verge of vigilantism. Still, Haruf's narrator doesn't tell us what Jack Burdette did.

Instead, in his characteristically simple storytelling style, Haruf explores how Holt's boys and men complicitly reward Burdette for his natural athletic abilities, his large size, and his ability to bully and manipulate his way out of many situations as he grows into a man. The complicit approval of Holt's citizens for Burdette's specific style of manhood becomes a powerful backdrop for the criminal behavior that must inevitably come. Yet Holt's men and women overlook these telling behaviors that show Burdette to be manipulative, impulsive, reckless, and even dangerous.

When Burdette crosses the line, no one can admit it, but they are somewhat responsible for creating the monster that Burdette has become. When Burdette crosses the line into betrayal, he can never come back.

And yet, he does.

Haruf's novel creates dramatic tension and a sense of mystery by exploring the latter point first. And during the rest of the story, Haruf explores what happened, including Holt's communal hostility toward Burdette and his innocent family.

Haruf's picture of small-town life depicts a tight-knit local community that buys into an idealization of manhood that emphasizes might over mind and popularity over morality. Where You Once Belonged subtley flauts the conventions and idealizations of the typical western novel, and shows how a modern vigalante gunslinger might be treated in a small town. Ironically, the tone of Where You Once Belonged is as tense and hard as any Clint Eastwood western, and as apt a depiction of an American Cowboy. In Burdette, Kent Haruf highlights a reckless gunslinger, with an emphasis on strength and disregard for decency. The citizens of Holt pay a dear price for buying into this idealization. Holt is no Mayberry.

Where You Once Belonged has many qualities that place it on my must-read list. I am a sucker for great character novels. And in this novel, Kent Haruf creates a believable character that might come from any small town that values its local heroes for the wrong reasons. The book is told through the voice of a narrator who could be sitting in a cozy booth at a local bar over a couple of beers. Yet the story, upon reflection, has the qualities of a superb western or even a Greek tragedy. And its ending is surprisingly, or read another way, disturbingly realistic.

Book Group Questions

  • Is Jack Burdette a product of his circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How do Holt's citizens play a part in Burdette's actions?
  • Burdette's father dies early on in the novel. What is the importance of father figures in the novel? Is the narrator Pat a good father figure? Why or why not?
  • What part does Wanda Jo play in the story?
  • Can a character like Jack Burdette realistically be forgiven for his actions, especially when he does not seek forgiveness? Why or why not?
  • Is Jack Burdette's portrait a type of the American West? If so, how?

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