A “plainsong” is a simple, unadorned melody, a Christian worship song without instruments, sung in unity. And it’s the fitting title of Kent Haruf’s lyrical novel about mythical Holt, Colorado, its flawed citizens and the angels that help save those most in need, especially the children.
Plainsong, the book, is truly a plainsong, unadorned and melodic. It is a gentle, calm story of human failings and redemption that matches its setting: the quiet plains of windswept northeastern Colorado. The cast of characters includes Maggie Jones, the catalyst who connects lost souls with their saviors; Tom Guthrie and his sons Ike and Bobby, whose mother is not up to the challenge of day-to-day parenting and moves to Denver, leaving the boys to find mothering where they can; the McPheron brothers, bachelor farmers who fill a hole in their lives by informally adopting Victoria Roubideaux, a pregnant teenage whose mother locks her out of the house; and a troublemaking high school student and his obnoxious parents.
At times, I felt like hugging this book because of the goodness of some of its characters, its authenticity and subtle humor.
Haruf is from my hometown of Pueblo, Colorado. Every year when we drive to our Colorado cabin, we pass Yuma, Colorado, which is the model for Holt. And Haruf ended up building a home in Salida, Colorado, one of my favorite places. So this novel had special connections for me. Sharelle Moranville has written about her admiration for Haruf. But we all enjoyed the book and look forward to reading more by Haruf, especially Eventide, which follows the characters five years later.
In a final interview just days before he died in November, 2014, Haruf said, “I want to think that I have written as close to the bone as I could.” He did indeed.
— Patricia Prijatel
Is there actually a mountain on the eastern Minnesota prairie? Did a young man who lived near it intend to commit a murder? Did he intend to kill himself? Did he actually kill himself? Was the man he murdered saint or sinner? How and why did the young priest’s wife end up reliving her mother’s last act?
We wrestled with these and a batch of other questions as we discussed this intriguing book, and were mixed in our reactions to it. The myths of early Anglo-Saxon literature fit in nicely—the coyote (Maltman calls them “little wolves”) who rescued the human baby, the man who turns into a wolf—and become intertwined with the reality of lost souls in the tiny prairie town, where people still blame dark deeds on the ghosts of the Native American who settled here first.
But some of the themes work, some don’t.
Our overriding question was: Where have all the editors gone? This is not the first time we asked this question—many of the books we have read have suffered from the need of an impartial expert to cut unnecessary details and story lines, to help the writer focus.
This could have been a brilliant book—and with more time from an editor, it should have been. Much of the writing is beautiful and the imagery is elegant. It was an enjoyable read, but not completely satisfying afterward. Too many themes were only loosely resolved; others were introduced then dropped, leaving us to wonder what to make of it all. Likewise, some of the characters were weakly drawn, including the teenager Seth, who is at the center of things; the newly minted priest Logan, who could have been fascinating with just a bit more focus; and Clara, who is looking for her own roots by studying ancient literature.
The setting was wonderfully imagined and Maltman makes the community itself a central character, which gives the book much of its strength. The father-son bonding throughout was compelling, especially in the ending, which was far lovelier than we could have expected.
We recommend the book, despite the above reservations, and would love to hear others’ reactions to it.
The other morning over coffee and The New York Times, my husband said, “Did you read Kent Haruf died?” I hadn’t, but I wasn’t surprised. I understood his most recent novel, Benediction, was given that title for a reason.
He is one of the few prolific writers of whom I can say that I’ve read all his books. And I’m sorry there will be no more. But I’d love to read at least one again (Plainsong would be my preference) and discuss it with the BB&Bers. (Also, it would address Ken’s lament that we’ve been reading a disproportionate number of women authors lately. ) 🙂
Plainsong was a finalist for the 1999 National Book Award. In it, as in all his novels, the style is unadorned; he lets his characters show themselves on the page by what they do and say; we have to get to the bottom of things on our own by observing their behaviors and thinking about them. He is very much a writer of place: of small town and rural Colorado. The characters are exactly life sized. They are ordinary people: elderly bachelor brothers on a cattle ranch; a pregnant teenager; a lonely and well-intentioned high school teacher; a single-parent dad; two little boys whose mother suffers from depression. It’s in their response to each other that Haruf shows us grace in the most unlikely places.
Even if it doesn’t make it onto our official reading list, I highly recommend it to you fiction lovers. And if you read it, I’d like to hear your impressions.