What distinguishes “A Great American Classic” from other novels?
After reading “The Tie that Binds” by Kent Haruf, you’ll have no problem answering that question. Haruf’s narrator, Sanders Roscoe, mesmerizes his audience as he speaks in a conversational first-person voice that makes you feel you’ve known him all of your life. But if the tale he has to tell doesn’t make you start questioning exactly what the word “justice” means, then you weren’t really listening.
It all began decades ago. As it ends, his closest neighbor, 81- year-old Edith Goodnough, is in a hospital bed with a deputy standing guard outside her door – just in case Edith decides to run. Society now classifies her as a murderer. Roscoe tells us this on page one, but before too long we find ourselves engulfed in a moral dilemma. Where was this society that now demands “justice,” as Edith single-handedly accepted all the injustices life dumped on her? What “justice” will be served by putting this old woman in jail?
Roscoe becomes incensed when a young Denver Post reporter shows up at his ranch in Holt, 150 miles due east of the big city. A regular city slicker, the reporter’s assignment is to gather the nitty-gritty details about what happened at the Goodnough’s place a few days ago. Dressed in yellow pants, not only is he scared of cows, he doesn’t know the first thing about country etiquette. Rudely interrupting Roscoe’s work doctoring cows, he demands answers about the Goodnough family.
Yes, Roscoe knew Edith his entire life. His father, John, attended school with her; he courted her, too, back in 1922, until her father, Roy, put an end to that. And yes, Roscoe understood why she started that fire. But the journalist only appeared concerned with the “who, what, and where.” If he’d shown the least bit of interest in the “why” behind all those basic facts, Roscoe would have felt obliged to bend his ear. Still, you need more than a newspaper article to explain why a kind woman, “whose only sin was to never put herself first,” would even contemplate such an act, Roscoe surmises. This is the way it is: Those who knew the hardships she endured over the last 81 years – understood. Those who didn’t – never would.
Flashing back to the past, Roscoe fills in the details. Roy and Ada Goodnough moved from Iowa to Holt in 1896, after Roy most likely saw a Colorado real estate brochure boasting of “wide-open spaces, with plenty of rainfall.” Ada never got over the deception and longed to return to Iowa, but Roy, “a mean sort of private person,” hated being dependent on his in-laws back east, so Ada would have to adjust.
Born in Pueblo, Haruf spent many years on the plains of Colorado. Geographically and culturally, his fictional town of Holt bears a striking similarity to Yuma, Colo., where Haruf lived with his wife during the 1980s. It isn’t shocking that he can vividly describe the setting, paying homage to the hardships that come with living in such an environment, along with the joy residents experience when, in an odd year, nature is kind. However, the author’s message isn’t about “hard times on the plains.” Instead, “The Ties that Binds” examines the conflict between personal happiness and family responsibilities.
We often think of the West as being settled by rugged individuals. But it took the concerted effort of the entire family to survive on the High Plains. Should a parent die or become ill, older children had to shoulder adult responsibilities – putting their educational and personal interests aside for the sake of the family. Therefore, when Ada died, leaving behind 17-year-old Edith and 15-year-old Lyman, Edith naturally assumed all of the household duties right along with her normal ranch chores. And she expected little sympathy, because she wasn’t the only girl on the plains who had to become an adult before their time. But those other girls didn’t have the additional burden of having a self-centered father like Roy.
The man viewed his children as his personal slaves and bullied them into submission. The situation turns from bad to worse after Roy’s hands become entangled in a harvester. While other men would learn to respect his children for standing by him, Roy becomes even meaner. His brainwashing techniques appear to paralyze the siblings, making them incapable of seeking their own way in the world.
With Edith’s urging, Lyman finally musters the strength to leave when he is 45 years old. Even then, he slips away in the middle of the night, like a teenager, fearing his father’s wrath should he discover Lyman’s plan. Edith tells him to go and live for “the two of them,” which he did, sending postcards and money to her over the years. He only returns home long after his father’s death.
When reunited, the siblings enjoy a few good years together. Then, tragedy strikes once again. Lyman develops dementia. His mental state flip-flops between adulthood and childhood throughout the day. Edith copes, caring for her brother until he begins physically attacking anyone who disagrees with him. Now, ravaged by age, Edith does what she always did. She puts the welfare of others before her own. Whether or not that was a crime will now be decided by a jury.
Engaging writing, a strong sense of place, memorable characters and a plot that keeps churning in your mind long after you’ve finished the book: Those are the ingredients for “A Great American Classic.” And that’s what you’ll find in “The Tie that Binds.”