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Where You Once Belonged by Kent Haruf Review
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Based on this review or your reading of this book
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 requires self-reflective honesty to explore.
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 Born on the figurative as well as literal wrong side of the tracks to an irresponsible father and an emotionally withdrawn mother, Burdett's behavior and character development unfolds as the product of a mean temperament, an abusive home life, and the desire to please. Yet Burdette's progression into manhood under these unfortunate circumstances isn't depicted in a sympathetic light. Haruf's unapologetic development of his anti-hero is painful to read at times.
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 will admit it, but the townspeople feel 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 flouts the conventions and idealizations of the typical western novel, where manhood and true grit are the backbone of heroic character. Haruf's characterization, whether intended or not, shows how a modern vigilante 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 as any I've read. In Burdette, Kent Haruf highlights a reckless gunslinger, with an emphasis on strength and disregard for the rules. Does the idealized American cowboy myth belong in small town Colorado?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?
One Of Kent Haruf's Finest Novels
Where You Once Belonged is one of Haruf's lesser well-known novels set in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado. His other novels, Plainsong and its sequel Eventide were the first books I read by this author. Both of these novels are written about multiple characters whose experiences blend together in one larger, poetic story. At the time, I was completely thrilled to discover a writer whose prose style was so mesmerizingly terse and beautiful. So few words, yet so much emotion under the surface of these stories that prominently feature older people who are still vividly alive and even, heaven help us, sexual.
When I moved to a small town on a plain in Eastern Iowa, I joined our local library's book club. The women in this book club have diverse literary tastes. Some enjoy mysteries, others are firmly reading in bestseller territory, and others' tastes are more literary. We read Plainsong as my author recommendation and it was a huge hit across the board. Some of the women in my group went on to read all of Haruf's works.
Personally, I think that Where You Once Belonged is one of Haruf's finest, most challenging novels. Sometimes when you read all of an author's books, you start to see patterns in the construction of the novels. I feel Plainsong and Eventide have a more picaresque quality, in the sense that the characters are not well-developed, and the books have an overall quality to them. As a photographer, I would have to describe this quality as the feeling you get during blue hour, that time after dusk when it isn't quite night, but day is definitely over. All of Haruf's books are a poetic thrill, but Where You Once Belonged is the most ambitious, with perhaps, the exception of Our Souls at Night or Benediction.
His characterization of the anti-hero in this story is gritty. And by focusing on the one character as seen through the eyes of others, a case is almost made for ostracism. As a person of religious faith, I finished this novel exploring questions like, "if someone doesn't want forgiveness, do they deserve it?"
If you read this book as part of a book club, you will not be disappointed. I expect you will have a lively discussion.
Recommended Fiction Featuring the American West
- Best Books About the American West
Novels about the American West may feature explorers, settlers, religious outcasts, cowboys, miners, fortune seekers, scoundrels, or outlaws. But the common thread that binds these books together is landscape, which becomes a character unto itself.
- The Big Rock Candy Mountain by Wallace Stegner: The American West Meets the Twentieth Century
The Big Rock Candy Mountain by Wallace Stegner follows the misadventures and tragedies of Bo and Elsa Mason and their sons. This intense character-driven novel features the American West at the turn of the 20th century as a sort of third character.
© 2008 Carolyn Augustine