Tag Archives: Kent Haruf

Plainsong by Kent Haruf

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.

Reading Plainsong

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.

Please repeat your subscription as recent difficulties with this blog resulted in them being lost. To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword  please enter your email address in the box.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

Loneliness in old age. It’s the biggest killer. In Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf Addie Moore has an idea about how to deal with her loneliness, especially at night when it hurts most. She approaches an acquaintance, Louis Waters with her unusual proposition and they begin a friendship with unexpected consequences for them both. They are both are over 70, widowed and living in the same area in their small American town, Holt Colorado.

Our Souls at Night is the 27th in my series on Older Women in Fiction. Thank you to my friend Sarah for the suggestion.

The story

Addie proposes to Louis that they could spend time together, at night, in bed, talking and sleeping and perhaps cuddling. Their relationship attracts gossip and assumptions but they continue. Addie’s grandson, Jamie, comes to live with her over the summer while his parents sort out their marriage. For a while this disrupts the new friendship, but Louis and Jamie get on well and especially after they acquire Bonny the dog. The relationship of the two old people unfolds as they talk more, explore their past, their marriages, their children and their regrets. And as they share the care of boy and dog.

Both Addie and Louis must deal with the disapproval of their adult children. After he has collected his son and plans to re-establish his own marriage, Addie’s son Gene continues to react badly to his mother’s friendship. He forbids them to see each other, and will not allow Addie to be with Jamie 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.

The Old Woman

Both main characters, Louis and Addie, are fully realised in this novel, but for the purposes of the older woman in fiction series I am focusing here on Addie. Here is how Louis sees her when she makes the bold step of proposing sleepovers.

He was watching her. She was a good-looking woman, he had always thought so. She’d had dark hair when she was younger, but it was white now and cut short. She was still shapely, only a little heavy at the waist and hips (4)

Addie 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, Louis tries to be discrete and use her back door.

What are you doing back here? Addie said.

I thought it would be less likely for people to see me.

I don’t care about that. They’ll know. Someone will see. 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, they reflect upon how they are no longer news for their neighbours. She says to Louis,

Do you want to be news?

No. Hell. I just want to live simply and pay attention to what’s happening each day. And come sleep with you at night.

Well, that’s what we’re doing. 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 outcomes of 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 other novels are on my tbr list, and highly recommended by readers I trust, and especially by Ursula Le Guin, who says 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 told in 43 very short chapters, each one begins by locating us in time. Their brief story (from May until the following winter) is tightly plotted. The writing style here is spare, un-dramatic, simple, 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. We learn people’s reactions from what they do and what they say.

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 tis brief novel we learn the value of relationships, of the talk that develops them and of the family and community influences upon them. A gem!

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

The next novel in this series will be The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim in July.

Over to you

Have you read Our Souls at Night? Or other novels by Kent Haruf? How did you react? Did you know that a film has been made of Our Souls at Night, starring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford but with no date set for release yet? Can you suggest any additions to the older women in fiction series?

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box.

8 Comments

Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews