I’ve been judging a novel contest lately, reading the first 20-30 pages of a slew of novels. They’ve been mostly historical fiction, a rather wide category but still surprisingly over-represented in this particular sample. Is the past somehow more romantic than the present? More urgent? I’ve certainly read and enjoyed my share of historical fiction, but generally look for novels written in the author’s present-day, expecting to get a more accurate flavor of the time. And anyway, whatever we write about today will soon enough become part of history. I’m occasionally surprised by how dated some novels written only ten years ago seem to me now.
Back to the contest, though. Some of the novels obviously came from the pens (or PCs) of writers still learning their craft, forcing me to find ways to offer advice without inflicting too much pain. Other entries were more accomplished. Much to my surprise, I could tell this was so within the first paragraph. Later, trying to pinpoint what tipped me off, I realised that I had relaxed. I felt comfortable falling into the story, able to trust that the author would not let me down.
As diverse as these novels were—good/bad, historical/present-day, thrillers, romances, mysteries, chick lit, humor—they had one thing in common: they started with a bang. Not literally, of course, but in media res, with action or strong emotion, some catalyst to set the story in motion. This is what writers these days are instructed to do.
Then we have Kent Haruf. Eventide starts slowly, gently. The aging McPheron brothers, Harold and Raymond, come up from the horse barn and wipe their feet before going in for a breakfast prepared by Victoria, a nineteen-year-old single mom they’d taken in a few years earlier. The scenes are set with leisurely details, describing their boots, the screened porch, the kitchen, the men, their steady routine. This is the day that they are driving Victoria and her little daughter to Fort Collins where the young woman is starting college.
In the next chapter we meet Betty June, putting her two children on the schoolbus. Betty and her husband, Luther, are mentally challenged, struggling to care for their children in a world that seems to them both baffling and hostile. Their social worker, Rose, offers help and advice, but she herself is sometimes overwhelmed by the cumulative weight of the many difficult situations her various clients find themselves in.
In the third chapter, we meet DJ, an undersized fifth-grader living with and caring for his 75-year-old grandfather, a retired gandy dancer on the railroad. DJ accompanies his grandfather on his monthly visits to the tavern so he could walk him home safely after celebrating the arrival of his pension check. DJ works on his homework while his grandfather visits with the other old men, telling “stories that were not exaggerated so much as they were simply enlarged a little.”
We follow these plain, good people as they pursue their lives in and around the town of Holt, Colorado. They endure the disappointments, losses, and small joys of everyday life. They drift apart and come together. The prose, too, is plain and good, the dialogue hinting at the accents and speech patterns of rural Colorado.
After the first three or four pages, I thought I was going to be bored out of my mind by this quiet novel, but once I adjusted and learned how to read it, I treasured each chapter, each page. I was touched, recognising again the generosity most people demonstrate toward those around them, how gentle they can be with each other. This story about how we connect with each other and how painful it is when those connections are severed served for me as a good corrective for all the hateful politics filling the airwaves, fear-fueled rantings against some imagined “other”. It also served to remind me that there are no rules for writing novels that cannot be broken by a good writer.