In the Friday, 15, 2015, issue of the WSJ writer Jennifer Maloney has a long and touching article entitled, “A Dying Writer’s Last Chapter” that is about Kent Haruf (Turkey 1965–67) and the novel he completed days before his death, Our Souls at Night. In the novel, Kent explores a highly personal story: finding love late in life. We reviewed the novel on this site several months ago. Take a look at the review by Tony D’Souza (Ivory Coast 2000–02, Madagascar 2002–03).
Kent grew up in a steel-mill town in Colorado and went to Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln where he (like many writers) discovered Faulkner and Hemingway. He studied English and then joined the Peace Corps. It was in Turkey that he started writing short stories and while there he applied for admission to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He was rejected by them. He got a job. He got married. He reapplied to Iowa in 1971 and this time he was accepted.
After that he spent 11 years trying to get published. He was 41 in 1984 when his first novel came out, The Tie That Binds.
The WSJ article isn’t much about his novels, but it is about the life Haruf lived. Actually, it is about the great love of his life, his second wife, Cathy Shattuck Dempsey, with whom he rekindled a childhood friendship in 1991. They met up at their 30th high school reunion. Both were married. Both had children. She had five; he had three.
They had first met in high school at Canon City, Colorado. They were friends, played in a band together, went on double dates together, but never dated.
She was now a special-education teacher in Virginia, working with physically disabled students. He was writing what would become his most successful novel, Plainsong, and after they met up, he modeled one of the characters in the novel, a teacher named Maggie Jones, after her.
What began as long-distance telephone calls following the high school reunion changed by 1995 when both of their marriages ended, and Cathy moved to Illinois where Kent was teaching in the MFA program at Southern Illinois University. They were married that year, both for the second time.
With the success of Plainsong, Kent was able to quit teaching and write full time. They moved back home to Colorado and built a cabin in the mountains near Salida, 60 miles west of the town where they had attended high school. They were ready to spend the rest of their life together, and they did, until February of last year when he was diagnosed with interstitial lung disease.
Recovering slight, on May 1, 2014, Kent started writing his last book. In June the first draft of Our Souls at Night was finished. In August he gave the novel to Cathy to read.
It is a novel of their love and marriage, and woven through the book are details of Haruf’s life, details of their marriage. For example, she relates that their favorite time together was lying in bed at night, talking. “It’s our love story,” Cathy told the reporter, “We would lie there and hold hands and talk. There wasn’t anything we never discussed.”
In September, on the 22nd, he emailed the manuscript to his editor, Gary Fisketjon at Knopf, who quickly had it copied edited and printed. Kent got a expressed-mailed coped-edited proof on November 25.
On the night of November 29, Kent and Cathy lay in bed — she in their queen bed and he in a hospital bed alongside. They held hands, talking quietly, then fell asleep.
When she woke in the morning, he was gone.