After I finished Where You Once Belonged, I thought I was finished with it. Slightly dissatisfied with the ending, I packed the book up to pass it along to a friend. Several hours later I found myself thinking about the characters and wondering, as I so often do with books I am engrossed in, what the characters were doing while I wasn’t reading about them. There, I thought, the characters are like real people to me, and I want to know more of their story.
Maybe one of my tests for whether a book is “good” or not is that I don’t want the story to end. Kent Haruf, also the author of Plainsong, which I plan to read next, writes about a fictitious town in Colorado where the Farmer’s Co-Op is the most important business. Where You Once Belonged is narrated by a journalist who grew up with Jack Burdette, the antagonist as well as the man who once belonged in the town. The story opens with Burdette returning to Holt in a red Cadillac after an eight year absence. He parks the car in the middle of town as though he is putting up a red flag and just sits there while his former townsmen pass by and curiously observe him. He has changed physically, and little by little one person after another recognizes him until someone calls the sheriff. Everyone is furious with Burdette, and the confrontation between Burdette and Sheriff Sealy ends with Sealy arresting Burdette.
Chapter two introduces us to the narrator and Holt. We learn about Burdette’s early life. He was not a good student, but he was big enough to be a decent football player. Thus he earns the admiration of much of the town. The rest of the story concerns Burdette’s fall from grace and the people who are pulled down with him. The narrator takes a larger role as the story progresses, and he finds his life intertwined with Burdette’s.
What makes the book worthwhile reading is Haruf’s combination of colorful characterization and skillful plot devices. We do not particularly like the narrator or other characters at first until we realize how much their health and happiness depend on what Burdette does. I found myself rooting for them. While I was not prepared for the ending, I realized that it was an honest one.
The book, first published in 1990, is a short, quick read.
My test for whether a book is “good” or not is that I don’t want the story to end. What’s yours?