The Volunteer who became an acclaimed novelist of small-town life — Kent Haruf (Turkey)

by Jeremiah Norris (Colombia 1963-65)

Kent Haruf served as a Peace Corps Volunteer English teacher in Turkey from 1965 to 67, after graduating from Nebraska Wesleyan University in 1966.

Kent Haruf

Before becoming a writer, Kent worked in a variety of places, including a chicken farm in Colorado, a construction site in Wyoming, a rehabilitation hospital in Denver, a hospital in Phoenix, a Presidential library in Iowa, an alternative high school teacher in Wisconsin, and various colleges in Nebraska and Illinois. Undoubtedly, these hardcore working experiences served as inspirational foundations to his later life as a novelist focused on the broad subject of small town America.

All of Kent’s subsequent novels take place in the fictional town of Holt in eastern Colorado. Holt is based on Yuma, Colorado, one of Kent’s residence in the early 1980s.

His first novel, published in 1984, The Tie That Binds, received a Whiting Award and a special Hemingway Foundation/PEN citation.

Where You Once Belonged followed in 1990. A number of his short stories have appeared in literary magazines, such as in Granta Magazine for “The Making of a Writer” in 2014, and in the same year for the “Wayback Machine” in the Colorado Central Magazine.

In 1999, Plainsong was published and became a U. S. bestseller. A reviewer called it “a novel so foursquare, so delicate and lovely, that it has the power to exalt the reader.”

Plainsong won the Mountains & Plains Booksellers Award, from Peace Corps Worldwide the Maria Thomas Award in Fiction and it was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction.

Eventide, a sequel to Plainsong, was published in 2004. Literary Journal described his writing as “honest storytelling that is compelling and rings true.” One reviewer saw it as a “repeat performance” and “too goodhearted.”

A third novel in this series, Benediction, was published in 2014. Of Kent’s novels, the Denver Post referred to him as “an astute observer of rural life,” and the New York Times called him: “An Acclaimed Novelist of Small Town Life”.

In the summer of 2014, Kent finished his last novel, Our Souls at Night, which was published posthumously in 2015 and adapted into a 2017 Netflix movie starring Robert Redford and Jane Honda.

Given Kent’s brief period in the publishing, and the film world as a well, he was a recognized novelist of rural life in the West, he is more than deserving of a Profile in Citizenship.

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  • Kent Haruf’s novels are outstanding–moving, tender, real. I read most of them before discovering that he was an RPCV so I read without bias. On a visit to Colorado some years later, I was driven by my best Peace Corps friend, Mike Fero, through the eastern part of the state, where Haruf’s books take place. It is a part of Colorado that people should see, though they rarely do. Hardscrabble towns in hard times. Fans of Haruf’s work might be interested to know that he also collaborated on a wonderful “coffee-table book” (I’m no fan of the term), “West of Last Chance,” with photographer Peter Brown. It is a fitting accompaniment to his novels.
    Jeanne Paul, Brazil ’64-’66

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