Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

Loneliness in old age. It’s the biggest killer. An old woman has an idea about how to deal with it, especially at night when it hurts most. She approaches an acquaintance, Louis Waters with an unusual proposition and they begin a friendship with unexpected consequences for them both. This is the fourth post in the series of older women in fiction around the world. It is the first of several written by a man.

5 Our Souls cover

The story

Addie Moore proposes to Louis Waters that they spend time together, at night, in bed, talking and sleeping and perhaps cuddling. They are both over 70, widowed and living in the same area in their small American town, Holt Colorado. Their relationship attracts gossip but they continue and it becomes richer as they talk more, explore their past, their marriages, their children and their regrets. And as they share the care of Addie’s grandson and a dog.

Both Addie and Louis must deal with the disapproval of their adult children. Addie’s son Gene reacts badly to his mother’s friendship. He forbids them to see each other, and will not allow Jamie to be with Addie unless she complies.

Although they no longer share physical closeness, they continue to talk on the phone. What is left is the warmth and pleasure that their relationship has given them.

It’s a story about love and friendship: about love between children, grandchildren, animals in older life. It is also about how people react to the intimacy of others, mostly of older people, although Louis and Addie don’t have sex.

Addie Moore – The Old Woman

Both main characters, Louis and Addie, are fully realised in this novel, but I am focusing here on Addie.

Addie has her own strength and refuses to be cowed by the small town gossip. She believes that her arrangement with Louis is their own business and she does not mind if people know about it. On his first night’s visit she challenges Louis’s discrete use of her back door.

Come by the front door out on the front sidewalk. I made up my mind I’m not going to pay attention to what people think. I’ve done that too long – all my life. I’m not going to live that way anymore. The alley makes it seem we’re doing something wrong or something disgraceful, to be ashamed of. (9)

Weeks later she says to Louis,

Who would have thought at this time in our lives that we’d still have something like this. That it turns out we’re not finished with changes and excitement. And not all dried up in body and spirit. (147)

This is a positive view of old age: ‘not finished with changes and excitement’ and ‘not all dried up in body and spirit’.

Much of the narration of the novel concerns their nocturnal conversations, and how they learn about each other’s lives. Addie is especially good at making sense of what has happened in the past.

Like any woman she has had her difficulties in life, especially the death of her daughter as a child and later of her husband. Her son is a casualty of these events, and is unable to understand her position. When he confronts his mother Gene uses words like ‘ashamed’, ‘approval’, ‘sneaking over’ and ‘meeting in the dark’. And all this being done by ‘people your age.’

The only weakness in the portrayal of Addie is her lack of other friends. A woman of her sense and age is likely to have a developed a network of women she could call upon. She seems only to be friends with one older woman Ruth, who lives nearby.

The writing

This was Kent Haruf’s last novel. He died in 2014. His fiction is recommended by readers I trust, and especially by Ursula Le Guin, who said in her review:

I don’t think there is a false word in Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night. Not for all the colloquial ease and transparency and apparent simplicity of the story, is there a glib word or predictable one. (From Words are my Matter 2016, p213)

It is not a long novel, and the story is tightly plotted. The writing style is spare, un-dramatic, even in tone. There are no speech marks to interrupt our reading. The language is simple and does not pause to explain. In the extracts quoted above there are few words longer than two syllables.

Ursula Le Guin again:

Writing about the everyday is a tough job. … So the light comes on in the bedroom on Cedar Street in Holt, Colorado. And a happiness is very cautiously, courageously, tenderly achieved. Not however in the way we might expect, but on quite complex terms, involving quite a few of the older citizens of Holt. Perhaps happiness is less predictable than misery, since it partakes of freedom, and it can’t be forever. But it can be real, and in this beautiful novel, we can share it. (Words are my Matter p233/5)

In this brief novel we learn the value of relationships, of the talk that develops them and of the family and community influences upon them.

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf. Picador (2015) 180 pp

Caroline Lodge of Bookword

2 thoughts on “Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

  1. Glad to see a Kent Haruf book here. I was first introduced to him by my sister, years ago. She gave me his Plainsong and said, “You know these people.”


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