There is a finite number of novels by Kent Haruf and I have now read three, all gems. Plainsong is the first of a trilogy featuring the inhabitants of Holt, Colorado. The small town dramas are delicately revealed and discreetly dealt with. For all their smallness and quietness, the events of these novels have much to teach us about what matters in our world and about human values.
Plainsong by Kent Haruf
The story of Plainsong weaves together the small events in the lives of several citizens of rural Holt. Tom Guthrie, American history teacher at the high school, has been abandoned by his wife and falls out with a particularly obnoxious pupil; Guthrie’s two boys, Ike and Bobby, are learning to live without their mother who had a breakdown; Victoria’s mother has little affection for her daughter and when Victoria becomes pregnant throws her out; two old brothers run a farm together for decades following the death of their parents. The wisest head belongs to another teacher Maggie Jones, who finds solutions to the difficulties of these characters and nudges them towards their better selves.
The title is interesting. This is printed before the title page.
Plainsong – the unisonous vocal music used in the Christian church from the earliest times; any simple and unadorned melody or air.
To begin with, the voices of these characters are separate and isolated, but as the story progresses they come to work in unison, but remain ‘simple and unadorned’. They are united by the dominant values of the small town: generosity, care and protection towards others, forgiveness. The two old guys take in Victoria and protect her against her ghastly former boyfriend; Guthrie stands up for what is right as he confronts the recalcitrant pupil and parents, even as his own sons are bullied; neighbours help each other out.
Kent Haruf died in 2014. His novels are highly recommended by readers I trust, and especially by Ursula Le Guin, who said in a review of 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, 213)
She reminds us that writing about the everyday is a tough job. Kent Haruf communicates the importance of the everyday by using a spare style: there are few adverbs, and no quotation marks. The result is an even tone, remaining calm even as tensions build and characters suffer. We learn people’s reactions from what they do and what they say.
Here’s a scene from a store where the old guys have taken Victoria to choose a crib for the baby she is expecting.
The girl watched it all from a kind of abject distance. She had grown increasingly quiet. At last she said, Can’t you wait? It’s too much. You shouldn’t be doing all of this.
What’s the matter? Harold said. We’re having some fun here. We thought you was too.
But it’s too expensive. Why are you doing this?
It’s all right, he said. He started to put his arm around her, but stopped himself. He looked down into her face. It’s all right, he said again. It is. You’ll just have to believe that.
The girl’s eyes filled with tears, though she made no sound. Harold took out a handkerchief from the rear pocket of his pants and gave it to her. She wiped at her eyes and blew her nose and handed it back to him. You want to keep it? Harold said. She shook her head. (174)
There is so much sensitivity, tenderness and trust revealed in this short example. It is simply done, with just the right amount of attention to each moment.
If you haven’t read Kent Haruf before you should treat yourself.
Plainsong by Kent Haruf, published in 1999. I read the edition by Picador.288pp. In this sequence there are also Eventide (2004) and Benediction (2013)
Also by Kent Haruf on Bookword: Our Souls at Night.
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