Ambitious, but never seeming so, Kent Haruf reveals a whole community as he interweaves the stories of a pregnant high school girl, a lonely teacher, a pair of boys abandoned by their mother, and a couple of crusty bachelor farmers. From simple elements, Haruf achieves a novel of wisdom and grace--a narrative that builds in strength and feeling until, as in a choral chant, the voices in the book surround, transport, and lift the reader off the ground. -- Publisher description.
This is one of those books that has themes — isolation, community, decency — without being about the themes. Instead, it is about the characters who, with perhaps one exception, seem lifted from everyday life. When you try to tell the story, they seem archetypical, maybe even trite: the pregnant teenager cast out by her mother, the kind-hearted teacher, the crotchety but kind old men. But it is Haruf's talent that they do not read that way. Instead of having that artificiality...instead of seeming fabricated solely for the purposes of build up through denouement...it felt like they had existed before the story ever started and had lives that went on long after the final page was done.
Very little happens in Plainsong. Very little gets resolved in Plainsong. But the word that keeps coming to mind is resonant. It's a word that I think is horribly overused when talking about books but, in this case, seems appropriate to me.
Perhaps the simplest way to express my feelings is that, upon finishing, I immediately ordered Eventide.
Heartstrings are truly pulled when lonely, isolated pregnant teenager, Victoria, is assisted by her teacher and put together with the older, crusty bachelor McPheron brothers. We can see the healing begin and a sense of family start to bud. We also read of the Guthrie family, high school teacher Tom and his two small sons, Ike and Bobby abandoned by their mother, learning to bond together to create a family that is secure and safe. Woven throughout the story are such wonderful, true to life characters such as Iva Stearns whom the boys at first fear but grow to rely on for comfort and conversation, and strong, confident Maggie Jones, another teacher, she looks beyond the surface of people and seems to know what they need even before they do themselves. Of course, not all the residents of this town are kind and thoughtful, just like real life, there those who are selfish and do more harm than good to others.
The author weaves his story around these struggling characters who learn to reach out and help one another. The story never crosses the line into becoming too emotional or overdone, the author’s writing is candid, under embellished and quite beautiful. I found Plainsong to be an uplifting experience, a simple, straight forward story that speaks to the heart.
Plainsong is one of those rare gems that comes along unexpectedly and immediately connects, refusing to be put down. Sparely written, rich, and exquisite, it is evocative of the humanity which unites us – flawed but ultimately decent.
In Holt, Colorado, high school teacher, Tom Guthrie, lives with his young sons Ike and Bobby. His wife and the children’s mother has retreated from her family, isolating herself in a darkened spare room before finally leaving for Denver. Victoria Roubideaux, a pregnant teenager, has been banished her from home by her mother – perhaps as a punishment to her absent father. Maggie Jones, another of Holt’s high school teachers, takes Victoria in for a time; but her aging and demented father prevents the arrangement from being more than temporary. Unexpectedly, the teen will find home with the elderly McPheron brothers, Harold and Raymond, bachelor, gentlemen farmers. Haruf’s characters, relatable and unremarkable in and of themselves, are richer for their relationships with one another. And we are reminded that the notion of family is not limited to blood ties – sometimes, it is much, much more.
Haruf is a new favourite author for me! Those who appreciate spare, quiet prose and a story driven by characters and setting will enjoy Plainsong – think Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin. Most highly recommended!
“… the country flat and whitepatched with snow and the wheat stubble and the cornstalks sticking up blackly out of the frozen ground and the winter wheat showing in the fall-planted fields as green as jewelry. Once they saw a lone coyote in the open, running, a steady distance-covering lope, its long tail floating out behind like a trail of smoke. Then it spotted the pickup, stopped, started to move again, running hard now ..." (178)
A young girl, pregnant, alone. Two curious young boys and their father, deserted by their depressed mother. A couple of old bachelor farmers who know cattle better than people. A woman who knows all of them.
Ordinary people, ordinary lives in a small town in the high plains of Colorado, working as they must, coping with loss, enjoying their small pleasures, doing their best. Loving what and whom they love, and dealing with trouble as squarely and pragmatically as they can.
In place of an epigraph between the title page and the half title page, we see this:
Plainsong--the unisonous vocal music used in the Christian church from the earliest times; any simple and unadorned melody or air.
The language is spare but unsparing. We see and feel with the characters as they face life, love, and death. There are experiences here that we haven't seen elsewhere, and they feel as real as memories.
One of the beauties of this book is that the heroine, if there is one at all, never steps into the foreground. She's just there, quietly doing what her heart tells her, making a difference. She rarely comes into full focus. And yet her role is crucial. I like how the author handled that, without fanfare. I also like his handling of the antagonist, without the contrived solutions of a conventional dramatic arc.
This book is a simple and unadorned melody set in the Great Plains of the western U.S., and, like the characters mirrored here, deeper and more complex than it appears on the surface.
Plainsong is about the lives of ordinary people living in fictional Holt County, Colorado. Each short chapter focuses on one of the central characters, which include high school teacher Tom Guthrie, Tom's young sons Ike & Bobby, 17-year-old Victoria Robideaux, and the cattle-farming McPheron brothers. Everyone is dealing with the cards life has dealt them, both good and bad, and everyone seems to have a burden to carry, alone. But gradually, their lives intersect, those burdens become shared, and the world is a better place as a result.
Others have compared Kent Haruf's writing to Marilynne Robinson (author of Gilead and Home), whose work I also love. Both authors have a way of immersing the reader in a slow, quiet story with surprising emotional impact. And Haruf's setting and characterizations are marvelous. I could picture the town, and feel the cold winter wind whipping across the prairie. My heart went out to characters dealing with troublesome life events, and I wanted to hug the McPheron brothers as their lives became richer by caring for others. I'm glad there are two more books in this series, because I'd be happy to sit a spell in Holt County.
Set in Holt, Colarado, two main stories are interwoven throughout the novel; Tom Guthrie, a teacher and father of two good kids, is struggling with the breakdown of his marriage and some problems at school, whilst the boys are increasingly lonely and missing the security of a stable home life. At the same school, a young student Victoria Roubideaux finds herself pregnant and cast adrift, reliant on the kindness and generosity of another school teacher and two farming brothers to help her build a plan for a new life.
This novel has a simple plot of everyday hardship, but Haruf's plainspoken and unsentimental prose builds an outstanding story of emotional tension, developing multifaceted characters that you sympathise with, worry about, get angry with, and plain just fall in love with. If they were all in front of me now I'd have to gather them all together for a major group hug before settling them down for a few beers and a barbecue.
Perfect is a pretty strong word to use, but try as I might I really can't find too much wrong with this novel.
Review written May 2014
This is a nearly perfect literary novel. It is a story of rural/small-town American life that focuses on a few characters whose experiences gradually begin to overlap. You will meet the young boys who see their mother slipping away, the school teacher whose struggles with a student threaten his family, the elderly farmer brothers who take in a stray, and the young woman whose mother turns her out after a bad decision. The weaver of all these plot threads is Maggie, a woman with a gift for bringing people together. Not every character triumphs, but many find a way to survive through the generosity of others.
Haruf has done what many others may fail to do: show human decency without sentimentality or dishonesty, in language that is as simple as it is dazzling. Don’t miss it.
We follow several stories that are vaguely connected. A schoolteacher having trouble with a bad boy in school. The teacher’s two young sons who experience the loss of their mother who have moved away because of a depression. A teenager who becomes pregnant - and find new hope staying with two elderly bachelor farmers.
That doesn’t sound very exciting or special - I know. But it’s the way Haruf “magically” with his sparse prose creates a very realistic tone - sometimes suspenseful and tragic, other times hopeful and funny. Not a sentence in this novel seems superfluous or out of place.
Tom Stechschulte narration in deep bass does a good job creating this special atmosphere. Specially his voice for the lovely grounded McPheron-brothers - providing us with most of the uplifting scenes in the book.
But... sometimes you just want to read something that's nicely written, that suggests there's a reason to have faith in anything, that aims for easily comprehensible structure and prose rather than whatever the most recent literary theory might be. This book is Friday Night Lights without football, with the same simple yet believable claim: hell is only other people when you're already hellbound. People will still read this long after all the tricky theory stuff has been out of print for years. That's not an unquestionable good, but I suspect it's a fact.
At first I was annoyed by the lack of quotation marks around the dialog, but, on the one hand, I don't think there's anywhere in the book that this is confusing, and, on the other, I began to see that as a deliberate device to reinforce the theme of the title. The language is plain and yet completely believable, as are the little touches--what the young boys do with their time or the socializing at the American Legion hall on a Friday or Saturday night. When a man spends the night with a woman, everyone in town knows about it--as one character points out, did the man not realize everyone knew his truck?
The story ends gently, without any startling revelations or violent upheavals, but it's satisfying as it is. There's apparently a sequel, though, and I'm not sure if I want to read it--knowing that change will bring pain to some of the people I've come to care about. But I may not be able to resist revisiting this world.
I began with Plainsong, which now comes to you highly recommended. Haruf provided an epitaph to the novel with this definition, “Plainsong—the unisonous vocal music used in the Christian church from the earliest times; and simple and unadorned melody or air.” Plainsong is a perfect title for a perfect novel.
The story revolves around history teacher Tom Guthrie and his two young sons, Ike and Bobby; Victoria Robideaux, a teenager thrown out of her home by her mother; Maggie Jones is a colleague of Tom’s, and she decides to help Victoria; two bachelor ranchers, Raymond and Harold, who take Victoria into their home, and Ella, Tom’s wife, who suffers some psychological problems; and finally, the town of Holt itself. All these characters live quiet lives trying to survive, while trying to bring others along with them.
Ella is living separately from Tom and the boys. She decides to move to Denver to live with her sister. Tom brings the boys for a visit with Ella before she leaves. Haruf writes, [Ike and Bobby] climbed out of the pickup and walked one after the other up the sidewalk and knocked on the door and stood waiting without turning to look back at him, and then she opened the front door. She had changed clothes since the afternoon and now she was wearing a handsome blue dress. [Tom] thought she looked slim and pretty framed in the doorway. She let them in and closed the door, and afterwards he drove up Chicago Avenue past the little houses set back from the street in their narrow lots, the lawns in front of them all brown with winter and the evening lights turned on inside the houses and people sitting down to dinner in the kitchens or watching the news on television in the front rooms, while in some of the houses some of the people too, he knew well, were already starting to argue in the back bedrooms” (118-119).
Ike and Bobby visit an elderly woman to collect the weekly newspaper money. She intimidated the boys a bit, but they were polite. On one such visit, Haruf wrote, “She shuffled into the next room and came back carrying a flat and ragged cardboard box, and set it on the table and removed the lid, then she showed them photographs that had been much-handled in the long afternoons and evenings of her solitary life, photpgraphs that had been lifted out and examined and returned to the black picture book album, the album itself of an old shape and style. They were all of her son, Albert. That’s him, she told them. Her tobacco-stained finger pointed at one of the photographs. That’s my son. He died in the war. In the Pacific” (149-150). I once ran errands for an elderly woman who was bed ridden. She chain-smoked as dug in her purse for a quarter.
This story won’t make you cry. It is the “comfort food” of reading. Like the epithet, steady good people live their lives trying to help one another any way they can. I can’t help being reminded of Thoreau’s note that “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.” I had a tough time putting this novel down when the door bell rang, or when I was called to dinner. It is a quiet read for quiet times. Plainsong by Kent Haruf is a novel you won’t soon forget. 5 stars.
Guthrie is a high school teacher whose wife leaves him first emotionally then physically. He’s raising two boys, Ike and Bobby, who are victimized by the bully their father is trying to master at school. Victoria Robideaux is a senior and pregnant by an out-of-towner who has left her. When her mother locks her out of the house she turns to Maggie Jones, a kindly neighbor who looks after her at first in her own home until her Alzheimer-cursed father makes that impossible, and then by talking her to the Messers McPherons, bachelor ranchers. Here Victoria stays and lives begin to change as a village becomes a family.
Beautifully told in spare, straightforward prose, the action tells the story of character and reveals that isolation and loneliness are not always man’s fate when compassion and adaptation to each other's needs exists. This is a sentimental story told in an unsentimental way. Foresquare, yet delicately done.
This is a story about kindness and decency triumphing over selfishness and cruelty. This is not a story about characters placed in exceptional situations like in wars or battles but about ordinary people with real-life difficulties exhibiting attributes or defects of character with which readers readily identify.
Plainsong takes place in a small-town rural Colorado community probably in the 1960s. Tom Guthrie is an American history teacher with eight and nine-year-old sons to raise. He and his mentally ill wife are estranged. Victoria Roubideaux is a pregnant seventeen-year-old high school student whose mother has banished her from their house. Harold and Raymond McPheron are two aged bachelor cow farmers who are asked by Maggie Jones, a sympathetic teacher at the high school, to take Victoria in. Russell Beckman is a selfish, nasty, indolent student in one of Guthrie’s classes. He and his vicious parents cause Guthrie considerable grief. Complicating Victoria’s life is the young man who has gotten her pregnant. Over the course of nine months the lives of these characters change, for better or worse, realistically, inexorably.
Kent Haruf writes beautifully. He places his characters in particular situations and, using third-person narration, tells their stories revealing only their conversations and their actions. He rarely interjects their thoughts. We, the readers, are left to hear and witness and judge these characters as we do actual people. Part of the appeal of this book is the not-immediately-knowing and, consequently, the craving to know why specific characters are in the situations we find them in so that we can project what they might do to rectify them.
I especially enjoyed the author’s terse dialogue and frequent use of sensory detail. You will read no empty dialogue here. What each character says is to the point and fits. Haruf has an excellent eye for sensory detail. He makes use of it without being ostentatious. What he uses goes beyond what we writers more often than not just make up. Here is an example:
“Guthrie ordered a beer and Monroe drew it and set it down in front of him. He wiped at a spot on the polished wood but it was something in the grain of the wood itself.”
The setting of the novel is as authentic as the characters and their conflicts. The school has the feel that I knew as a public school teacher. The activities of the McPheron brothers working their cow farm were detailed and instructive.
If you are looking for affirmation that goodness can overcome the meanness of life, if you care about people, you will enjoy this book.
Haruf's beautifully understated prose corresponds perfectly with the title: simple, unadorned, melodic. The characters are presented perfectly, in all their imperfections. For some people life has many negatives, but in this mesmerizing novel Haruf shows that positives shine.
The singers are varied: Tom Guthrie is a high school history teacher whose wife is absent first mentally and then physically; Maggie Jones, also a high school teacher, is in love with Tom; Victoria Roubideaux is 17, pregnant, and evicted by her mother; and Harold and Raymond McPheron are two old bachelor brothers who take in Victoria at Maggie’s request. In addition, we become privy to the impressions of Guthrie's two sons Ike (10) and Bobby (9), whose lonely peregrinations around the town enable us to meet some of the other denizens of Holt through the eyes of children.
Haruf sings their stories in alternating chapters, using a spare prose that emphasizes the quotidian concerns on rural Colorado, focusing on the land and its centrality to those who make their living from it. The life cycles of horses and cows are as much a part of their existence as the life cycles of people, and affects them just as deeply.
Haruf shows us mean, bullying, abusive behavior, as well as kindness, generosity and decency. There is plenty of each in Holt. He doesn’t expose interior motives; he just paints the picture of these inhabitants against the big western skies and asks us to listen to their songs and get a glimpse of this slice of America.
At the end of the book, all the solo parts combine in an ensemble piece that ends cinematically, with the camera of the author’s eye panning back and looking at the rural scene he has constructed, with the men and women and children in small groupings, and the breeze blowing and the barn swallows coming out to hunt for lacewinged flies in the dusk. You can almost hear the music cueing up; maybe not a plainsong chant, but something with epic sweep, to highlight the quiet majesty and everyday heroism of these ordinary lives in an ordinary place.
Evaluation: This quiet book gives an excellent picture of life in a rural community. Because the author stays on the exteriors of the characters, however, I never got emotionally invested in the book; it was more like looking at a picture album.
This is a special book, told by someone who knows small towns and their residents, who understands their problems, but who sees the good deep inside.
A wonderfully quiet story and I am looking forward to reading more books by Haruf.
The setting is the small town of Holt—located in the prairie not too far from Denver. The type of town where people know each other's business and papers are still delivered by boys on bicycles. Yet as much as people know you in a small town, they don't really know you or what goes on behind closed doors or closed mouths. In this small community, we get inside the minds and lives of several Holt residents—all of whom are suffering from some form of loneliness, sadness or isolation.
* Tom Guthrie—a teacher at the local high school whose wife has become distant and unreachable
* Ike and Bobby—Guthrie's two sons, who are confused by their mother's distance and looking for a way to recapture her love and attention
* Victoria Roubideaux—a high school girl who finds herself pregnant and cast out of her home by her mother
* The McPheron Brothers—two older bachelor brothers who live on a farm outside of Holt and keep mostly to themselves.
* Maggie Jones—a single woman who teaches with Guthrie and cares for her elderly father and serves as the glue that begins to bind these individuals together.
Each of these characters alone has a voice that is aching to be heard and understood. And as they move ever closer together to form a type of family of their own, their voices and lives begin to intertwine and harmonize together in a way that is true, touching and beautiful.
At the start of the book, Kent Haruf provides the definition of plainsong:
The unisonous vocal music used in the Christian church from the earliest times; any simple and unadorned melody or air (e.g., Gregorian chant is type of plainsong).
I didn't fully appreciate the meaning of the title until the end of the book. But upon finishing the book, the title just made so much sense and was so fitting. In the book, each of the character's individual lives comes together to become part of a bigger whole—with each voice complementing and harmonizing with the other voices. At its heart, this book is about seeing a new community being formed from lives that were previously lived separately and parallel.
The book is both simple and subtle. It doesn't hit you over the head with things. Rather, it lets you experience the lives of the characters through simple narration and dialogue. Even the dialogue is unadorned with quotation marks (and sometimes attribution). I could see that some readers might find this book a bit slow-paced or even frustrating. But if you stick with it until the end, you'll appreciate the author's skill in giving you much more that you thought you were getting at first glance.
Frankly, I was surprised at how satisfied I was by the end of the book. I struggled to get into the story for a little bit and found the shifting viewpoints a bit off-putting at first. It was almost like drifting from character to character like a ghost—getting a little bit here, leaving for awhile, and then coming back and getting a little more. Once you adapt to the rhythm of the book, though, it turns into a rich and rewarding read.
My Final Recommendation
I don't think this book is for everybody. If you're the type of reader who likes big, loud, obvious books (i.e., ones that read like a summer blockbuster movie like Transformers), I don't think you would care for Plainsong. However, if you're the type of reader who has patience and an appreciation for slower-building, more subtle books (i.e., ones that read like an art house film), then this book would be perfect for you. Think of Plainsong as a cup of tea—it takes time to steep and brew and you drink it slowly but, at the end, you're filled with warmth and satisfaction.
And for those of you who care about such things, Plainsong was a finalist for the National Book Award.
While emotions run deep in Haruf's prose as in Hemingway's, Plainsong deals with recovery, redemption, and kindness rather than the themes of violence, loss, and human damage that underscore many of Hemingway's novels. There is plenty of cruelty and pain in Plainsong: a pregnant teenager is abandoned by her mother and her baby's father, a mother of two young boys is crippled by depression and incapable of mothering, a teacher is bullied and threatened for failing a slacker who deserves to fail. Yet each narrative of loss has an upward trajectory, wounds slowly healed rather than opened and re-opened. My only bone of contention with this beautiful, under-stated novel is that the characters weren't tested nearly enough. Their problems resolved too easily. They were strong enough to survive greater strife, with consequently greater triumph. Haruf could use a dash more Hemingway and still avoid "depressing" by a long shot.
Like the narrative, the prose is less spartan than it appears on the surface. It's precise. Each description, thought, and especially each dialogue sequence, is erected carefully without seeming careful, a bone fitted and flowing into the skeleton of an elegant house, inviting the reader to inhabit the vivid spaces between the bones, spaces in which Holt County lives and breathes. The hard glint to Haruf's words adds to a sense of bounty, not paucity.
"They were dumbfounded. They looked at her, regarding her as if she might be dangerous. Then they peered into the palms of their thick callused hands spread out before them on the kitchen table and lastly they looked out the window toward the leafless and stunted elm trees.
Oh, I know it sounds crazy, she said. I suppose it is crazy. I don't know. I don't even care. But that girl needs somebody and I'm ready to take desperate measures. She needs a home for these months. And you-she smiled at them-you old solitary bastards need somebody too. Somebody or something besides an old red cow to care about and worry over. It's too lonesome out here. Well, look at you. You're going to die some day without ever having had enough trouble in your life. Not the right kind anyway.
...So for a while they stood below the windmill in the failing light. The thirsty horses approached and sniffed at the water and began to drink, sucking up long draughts of it. Afterward they stood back watching the two brothers, their eyes as large and luminous as perfect round knobs of mahogany glass. It was almost dark now. Only a thin violet band of light showed in the west on the low horizon.
All right, Harold said. I know what I think. What do you think we do with her?
We take her in, Raymond said. He spoke without hesitation, as though he'd only been waiting for his brother to start so they could have this out and settle it."