Kent Haruf's [pronounced to rhyme with "sheriff"] novel The Tie That Binds ( 1984), is the fictitious story of 80-year-old Edith Goodnough of Holt County, Colorado, as told to an unnamed inquirer on a Sunday afternoon in the spring of 1977 by her 50-year-old neighbour, a farmer called Sanders Roscoe. Roscoe is not necessarily a reliable narrator: He has loved, respected, and pitied Edith all his life. Whatever he narrates about the early days of the Goodnough family Roscoe learned from his father, who has been dead for almost 30 years. ("Most of what I´m going to tell you, I know. The rest of it, I believe.")
The story opens with the narrator, Sanders Roscoe, defending his neighbor Edith Goodnough to a reporter trying to dig up dirt on her. She has been accused of murdering her brother Lyman. Sanders seems disappointed in the Sherriff for caving in to the reporter, saying that to understand what happened you would have had to know Edith's story, which he begins to tell.
In 1896, newlyweds Roy and Ada Goodnough leave Iowa and settle down in northeastern Colorado under the Homestead Act of 1862. The business of farming is a tough affair in those days, but Roy is a hard-working man who eventually succeeds in growing wheat. Ada bears him two children: Edith, who is born in 1897, and Lyman, born two years later. As their neighbour, Hannah Roscoe, the narrator's grandmother, a Native American woman whose white husband left her and their six-year-old son for good, quietly observes the Goodnoughs and also, on Ada's request, helps deliver Edith and Lyman.
Very soon Ada regrets leaving Iowa for the plains of Colorado. Her husband turns out to be a bully, an angry and violent man without any sense of humour who makes her and their children work very hard on the farm. When she dies in 1914, aged only 42, Edith has to take over all of Ada's chores and duties. Then, in 1915, a terrible accident during harvest time seals Edith's fate: Her father's hands get entangled in a machine, and nine of his fingers are chopped off. This severe physical handicap leaves Roy Goodnough all the more cruel and demanding; he considers, and treats, Edith and Lyman as his "self-sired farmhands", bossing them around and taking all decisions himself.
As the two siblings grow up, they start looking for means of escape but soon realize that they are stuck on their father's farm and, as opposed to city kids, they are bound by a rural code of honour and a sense of duty and thus prevented from abandoning the farm and leaving their father alone. For the next 37 years, Edith performs the duties of farmer, housewife and nurse without ever complaining, renouncing her personal freedom and refusing to get involved with men except for a brief but powerful romance with the narrator's father, who Edith loves but refuses to marry out of a sense of duty to her father and brother. Despite her rejection, he never gets over her. Lyman, tall, inexperienced in the ways of the world and deeply frustrated, finally sees his chance of escape when, in 1941, the United States is attacked by Japan. In the middle of the night and with the help of the Roscoes, he secretly leaves the farm and goes to the city with the intention of joining the armed forces. But at 42 he is too old to enlist and instead embarks on a tour of the United States which lasts for more than 20 years. All those years, Edith never doubts that one day her brother will return. He does so, too, in the early 1960s, almost ten years after their father's peaceful death at 82.
For six years Edith and Lyman, now both in their sixties, live happily together in their farm house, often going sightseeing in Lyman's Pontiac. Then in 1967, the Goodnoughs, Sanders and his wife Mavis, now eight months pregnant, decide to go to the county fair together. They stay late into the night, drinking and having a good time, but on the way home Lyman crashes his Pontiac, causing Mavis to miscarry and giving himself a head injury from which he never truly recovers. He becomes moody, childish and antisocial. Edith's sense of duty requires her to look after her brother, who becomes more and more reclusive, eventually refusing to leave the house and his new obsession: planning trips around the country that he'll never take.
As they grow older and frailer, Edith decides to move everything downstairs and close off the second story, and enlists Sanders' help. Upstairs, he discovers only one bedroom with only one bed, a fact which Edith does not attempt to disguise, saying only that they moved the extra bed out when Lyman came home to make room for his things. Sanders says nothing, allowing that when you live out in the country you come to understand your neighbors, or at least accept them, because you all know how hard life can be. In the following years, Edith draws some pleasure from spending afternoons with Rena, Sanders' daughter, who is born in 1969. But soon it becomes too dangerous for Rena to go to the Goodnoughs on her own, as Lyman, who has regressed to infancy, is prone to unprompted outbursts of violence.
Eventually, on New Year's Eve, 1976, Edith, unable to care for Lyman but unwilling to put him in a home, prepares for the only way out she can see. She has Lyman put on his best clothes, cooks a three-course dinner for him, waits for him to fall asleep and then sets fire to their house. Things do not happen according to plan though because the fire is detected too soon and the two old people are evacuated. However, Lyman never recovers from the injuries inflicted by the fire and dies soon afterwards.
In the spring of 1977 Edith Goodnough is still lying in a hospital bed with a policeman stationed outside her room and facing charges of attempted murder. The Roscoes visit every day.