R.I.P. Kent Haruf, Colorado Author Who Captured the Plains

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I spent the weekend driving across the plains of Colorado, and it's impossible to travel over that terrain without thinking of Kent Haruf, the author who captured both the land and the people who live there so well in his books, including Plainsong and Eventide. Now comes word from his publisher that Haruf has passed away at 71.

See also: Kent Haruf stakes out the Literary Turf of Colorado

Haruf was born in Pueblo, and several of his novels were set in the fictional town of Holt, based on the small towns on the Colorado plains where he grew up. His first book, The Tie That Binds, published in 1984, was a runner-up for the PEN/Hemingway award for first fiction; his next book, Where You Once Belonged, came out in 1990. But it was Plainsong that really put Haruf -- and Holt -- on the literary map. Its success allowed him to stop teaching and move to Salida, where he wrote full time.

Although Haruf's work would have seemed to make him a natural for Denver's One City, One Book program, he was never chosen -- and the adult portion of that Denver program was phased out last year, just as Haruf's last published book, Benediction, brought the Plainsong trilogy full circle. A sixth novel, Our Souls at Night, will be published next year, according to Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, which yesterday confirmed that Haruf had died after battling cancer.

Governor John Hickenlooper tweeted out these words after hearing of his death: "Our thoughts & prayers are w/ the family of longtime Coloradan, Kent Haruf, who wrote so beautifully about our state."

Colorado has recognizable schools of art, peopled by painters and sculptors who've captured our landscape over the last century and a half. But the most famous fiction set in this state has been done on a drive-by basis. Jack Kerouac passed through for On the Road; James Michener set up shop temporarily for Centennial. While Montana has Ivan Doig and a host of writers who capture Big Sky Country, and New Mexico's bookstores boast shelves of everyone from John Nichols to Tony Hillerman, Colorado had Kent Haruf.

It will always be impossible to drive across the plains without remembering his words that capture that landscape, including these from Benediction: "Out from Denver, away from the mountains, back onto the high plains: sagebrush and soapweed and blue grama and buffalo grass in the pastures, wheat and corn in the planted fields. On both sides of the highway were the gravel county roads going out away under the pure blue sky, all the roads straight as the lines ruled in a book, with only a few small isolated towns spread across the flat open country."

Send tips to patricia.calhoun@westword.com.

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