Published by Vintage
Publication date: August 22nd 2000
From an aerial satellite view one might think Holt, Colorado to be a town so tiny as to be without interest. That would be the case if not for Kent Haruf, who brings this town to quiet, poignant life in the novel Plainsong. There are the McPheron brothers, older farmers who have never married and still live life much as they always have. There is Guthrie, a teacher with two small boys, Ike and Bobby, and a wife whose unspecified ailments mean she can no longer live with them but moves to Denver to live with her sister. Victoria is a teenage girl who finds herself pregnant and has been kicked out of the house by her mother. She moves in with Maggie Jones, a teacher, but cannot stay because Maggie’s elderly father does not know her and becomes violent and confused. This then is what Holt is really like. From a distance not much is happening, but up-close (and in the hands of Haruf) it could be a mega-city for the intensity with which lives are being played out, decisions made and regretted, time passing.
Although Plainsong is written in chapters about each character separately it doesn’t take long to see how their circumstances overlap. Each character knows the other but Haruf switches up the context, leaving the reader with a feeling first of surprise that this is so and then one of the complete rightness of it all. The McPheron brothers are two of the most beautifully written characters I’ve ever read. Profoundly out of their depth when they offer to share their home with Victoria, their efforts to make her comfortable in their farm world are heartbreakingly sweet. Bring-tears-to-your-eyes-and-sigh kindness. And yet, there is no syrup with Haruf. These are old-fashioned men, farmers and ranchers, with the smell of hay on their overalls and a slow hard cadence to their speech. With precision and tenderness Haruf brings to life everyone in the novel, no matter how great or small their part. When Victoria finds out she’s pregnant
The old doctor reached up and took her hand and held it warmly between both of his hands for a moment and was quiet with her, simply looking into her face, serenely, grandfatherly, but not talking, treating her out of respect and kindness, out of his own long experience of patients in examination rooms.
It is this sort of seemingly effortless prose that marks Haruf as a master of American literature. Simplicity like this does not come easy. Haruf writes exactly what needs to be said, not a word more or a sentence less and in doing so gives Plainsong a spare grandeur that is lacking in many much larger books.