Plainsong

by Kent Haruf

Paperback, 2000

Status

Available

Series

Genres

Publication

Vintage (2000), Edition: First Printing, 301 pages

Description

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.

User reviews

LibraryThing member TadAD
Spare. Rich. Elegant. Quiet. Lovely. Never mind that some of those adjectives seem to contradict each other. So many books want to show you a slice of life; this one succeeds. Haruf may not have written a revolutionary novel, but it is a deeply good and satisfying one.

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.
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LibraryThing member DeltaQueen50
I have just finished the spell bounding Plainsong by Kent Haruf and I don’t believe that I can write anything about this book that will do it justice. In the setting of a small rural Colorado town, the author tears back the layers to reveal the inner lives of various residents and in doing so shows us how valuable and needed family ties are, but also, and more importantly, that these family ties need not be connected by blood.

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.
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LibraryThing member lit_chick
“They set out in the bright cold day, riding in the pickup, the girl seated in the middle between them with a blanket over her lap, with the old papers and sales receipts and fencing pliers and the hot wire testers and the dirty coffee mugs all sliding back and forth across the dashboard whenever they made any sharp turn, driving north toward Holt …” (178)

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)
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LibraryThing member Meredy
Six-word review: Caring about others makes people beautiful.

Extended review:

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.
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LibraryThing member lauralkeet
Why did it take me so long to get my hands on this book? I actually think I had it confused with another title, until some recent LibraryThing "buzz" caused me to take a closer look. And it was brilliant.

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.
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LibraryThing member AlisonY
I may just have fallen in love with a new author... A beautiful, pared back and emotional read, I thought this was a fantastic book, executed with a quiet brilliance that pulls hard on the heartstrings.

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.
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LibraryThing member laytonwoman3rd
As simple and beautiful as its title would imply, this is the uncomplicated story of several quite ordinary, utterly real and oddly engaging people as they meet what life deals out over the course of a little less than a year. We come into their lives in the middle, and very little back story is revealed. Tom Guthrie is a high school history teacher whose wife seems to have sunk into depression and ultimately leaves him and their two little boys to live with her sister in Denver. We don't know why. Victoria Robideaux is 17, and pregnant. When her bitter miserable mother discovers her condition, she locks Victoria out of the house. Another high school teacher, Maggie Jones, takes her in, and eventually arranges for her to lodge with two old brothers on their small farm (one thinks inevitably of Garrison Keillor's Norwegian bachelor farmers). There is not an earth-shattering event in this novel, and the drama, even in the tensest moments, is low-key. So is the humor. As a girl who grew up in small towns and spent a lot of time on small farms, I settled right into this world (doesn't matter at all that this story is set in Colorado, and my places are in Pennsylvania and New York), as easily as I would slip into the kitchens and barnyards of my youth. Without preaching, Haruf shows us people for whom doing Right is the natural way of things, even when the odds seem to be against that way working out. These are not Goody-Two-Shoes people; just Good people. When bad stuff happens, they face it head on, and hope for the best. If you're inclined to cynicism, a chorus of Plainsong might be just the tonic you need.

Review written May 2014
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LibraryThing member kambrogi
When I finished this book, I turned the volume over in my hands and stroked the cover, smiling. I do that sometimes if a book is really, really good. I don’t want to let it go right away, even though I’ve read the last word.

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.
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LibraryThing member ejj1955
Wow. I've just finished this book and part of me wants to let it sit in my mind for a while as I figure out what it is about it that is so powerful. It is a simple story, simply told, of ordinary people in a small town in the windswept Great Plains. The time in which it is set is never explicitly stated, but it's most likely the mid-1970s. A teacher's wife leaves him with their two sons; a high-school girl gets pregnant and, when thrown out by her mother, finds a new home; two brothers, farmers, find that they can change to help someone in need.

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.
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LibraryThing member stillatim
I don't often rank things according to goodreads 'hate, dislike, okay, like, really like' scale. I think books should be rated as good or bad; sue me. But this one... this one I couldn't resist. I liked it, okay? Yes, it's simplistic, goodies and baddies are signposted more effectively than in your average Captain America strip. Yes, it's kind of a morality tale. Yes, it borders on the hopelessly romantic. Yes, there are more analogies in the first chapter than I would usually allow in any roman a fleuve, let alone single volume novel. Yes, it reads kind of like Cormac McCarthy if he was really happy and content, and honestly? That's really freaking weird.

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.
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LibraryThing member ctpress
"Plainsong" is the first in a trilogy all set in the fictionalized town of Holt, Colorado. I’ve already read the third "Benediction".

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.
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LibraryThing member Limelite
In the town of Holt, CO, there is nothing much but the kind hearts and gentle souls of good people, enough to battle the few brutal and cruel natives and strangers who come to town.

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.
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LibraryThing member rmckeown
About a year and a half ago, I reviewed the splendid and tender novel, Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf. While on a reconnaissance mission to new and independent books stores in Florida, I came across four of his six novels. The owner of the shop happened to be there and we talked about some authors she liked, and when she mentioned Haruf, I swept up the four missing works. We will be spending a lot of time with the novels of the departed Kent Haruf over the next year.

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.

--Jim, 1/2/17
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LibraryThing member HaroldTitus
I loved this book’s humanity, its characters, and the author’s craft.

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.
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LibraryThing member Monkeypats
The book is exactly as the title describes - plain, but beautiful. Kent Haruf paints a picture of people you come to believe could be real. His writing provides a beautiful story that lets you determine the meaning for yourself, without forcing his own deeper meanings or philosophy blatantly upon you. A simple story and a great read - highly recommended!!… (more)
LibraryThing member herschelian
Stunning, stunning writing. Why on earth is Kent Haruf not better known? This is one of the most evocative, beautifully written books I have ever read. You can hear the voices of the characters in your head - so real, so true. I have just discovered that there are two other books which are loosely allied with this, I can't wait to read them. Do yourselves a favour, read this book!!… (more)
LibraryThing member Sarah_Beaudette
This style of prose is often called spare, and compared to Hemingway. It's true you'll find no florid monologues, no frilly analogies, and little hemming and hawing in the thoughts and words of these plain, hard-working people. But I wouldn't call the prose spare and I wouldn't compare it to Hemingway.

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."
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LibraryThing member RobinDawson
Reminded me of Marilynne Robinson (and that's high praise), given its concern with humanity and morality, and its spare understated style.
LibraryThing member BrianDewey
Haruf, Kent. Plainsong. Vintage Contemporaries, New York, 1999. A lovely little book. Haruf's done a great job capturing his characters and bringing a small town to life. For some reason, I kept expecting some earth-shattering traumatic event to happen (isn't that supposed to occur in these small-town novels?), but nothing that explicit happens. Instead, we see the nervous breakdown of a mother, the life of her twin boys, the nervous new loving of their father, a teenage mom and the bachelor brothers that care for herI haven't heard if this book has been optioned for a movie, but it wouldn't surprise me if they made one starring Kevin Costner as the dad. Beautiful cinematography, released in the late fall or early winter to be noticed as a ``serious'' film for the Oscars.… (more)
LibraryThing member Jenners26
Story Overview

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.

My Thoughts

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.
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LibraryThing member porch_reader
Plainsong tells the story of life in the small town of Holt, Colorado. I grew up in a small town and live in one currently. I'm fascinated by small town life, but I'm also very critical of books that don't get it quite right. Haruf gets it right. He tells the story from multiple perspectives, a high school teacher, his two sons, two bachelor farmers, and a pregnant high school student, to name a few. The storylines interweave and create a tapestry of small town life. The characters don't always make good decisions. They are not always likeable. But they are real. And there is the spark of hope and goodness that underlies even challenging situations. My favorite chapter was the one in which the two bachelor farmers take the pregnant high school student (who they've taken in) shopping for a crib. I was grinning through the whole thing.

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.
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LibraryThing member VivienneR
"Plainsong - the unisonous vocal music used in the Christian church from the earliest times; any simple and unadorned melody or air"

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.… (more)
LibraryThing member nbmars
The epigraph tells us that “plainsong” is “the unisonous vocal music used in the Christian church from the earliest times; any simple and unadorned melody or air.” It is definitely in the second sense of meaning that Haruf creates the libretto for Holt, Colorado, a small town in the High Plains east of Denver.

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.
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LibraryThing member tututhefirst
This is absolutely gorgeous, luscious, and at the same time just plain simple. Like a quilt with a seemingly easy pattern and only a few colors, but whose design is so intricate you almost can't piece it.

Haruf presents a picture of small town America...a prairie farm town outside of Denver in Colorado. He takes a few people and shows us how those lives intertwine through ordinary everyday happenings:

*There is Tom Guthrie, a high school teacher who is dealing with a recalcitrant bully (and his parents) in one of his classes, whose wife is so mentally ill she won't come out of her room and who eventually leaves him, and his two sons Ike and Billy 9 and 10 whose small town paper route requires that they get up at daybreak every morning to go down to the train depot, roll the newspapers and then deliver them via their bikes before coming home to eat breakfast and get ready for school.

*There's Victoria Roubideaux, a beautiful, shy, high school student whose mother locks her out of the house and will have nothing to do with her when she discovers her daughter's pregnancy.

*There's Maggie Jones, another high school teacher, who befriends Victoria and others in town, and who has been pining for Tom Guthrie for a long time, all the while caring for her very old mentally addled father.

*And there are the McPheron brothers, as American Gothic a pair as you can imagine. These two are just absolutely worth the entire book. Bachelor farmers who were orphaned before their teens, they live alone 17 miles outside the town, go to bed by 9 at night, get up with the chickens, and rarely speak since there doesn't seem to anything but hog belly futures to worry about. At the urging of Maggie, they take in the homeless Victoria, and the rest as they say is history...

This is an exquisite book, written in superbly simple descriptive prose that leaves you breathless, both with the characters, the settings, the various episodes of living and the warm loving portrayal of small town life. I borrowed this from the library, but you can be sure this one is going on the wishlist to buy so I can read it again and again. It is easy to see how it was a National Book Award finalist.
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LibraryThing member Sarah_Beaudette
This style of prose is often called spare, and compared to Hemingway. It's true you'll find no florid monologues, no frilly analogies, and little hemming and hawing in the thoughts and words of these plain, hard-working people. But I wouldn't call the prose spare and I wouldn't compare it to Hemingway.

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."
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