Fiction – paperback; Picador; 301 pages; 2001.
When Canadian author Lauren B. Davis named Kent Haruf’s Plainsong as one of her favourite books for Triple Choice Tuesday earlier this year I knew I had to read it. “Not only is his writing nearly perfect in its precision (not an extra word, not a single imperfect metaphor, every detail exactly chosen), Haruf’s compassion, his simplicity, his understanding of the human soul are inspiring,” said Lauren. “Unlike so many contemporary writers, who expend vast quantities of energy being oh-so-clever, Haruf eschews wit for heart.”
She wasn’t wrong. Plainsong is a beautiful, sincere story about real people with complicated, messy lives — and I loved every single carefully chosen word of it.
A cast of troubled characters
The novel is set in rural Colorado in the 1980s and follows the trials and tribulations of a handful of diverse but interesting characters, each of whom has a personal problem to work through.
There is Tom Guthrie, a schoolteacher, who is left to bring up his two young boys — Ike, 10, and Bobby, 9 — when his wife, incapacitated by depression, leaves him.
There is Victoria Roubideaux, a 17-year-old schoolgirl kicked out of the family home by her mother when she falls unexpectedly pregnant.
And there are the two old, never-married, McPheron brothers, Harold and Raymond, who run a farm and take in Victoria despite never having lived with a woman before.
A larger cast of subsidiary characters, including the elderly Mrs Stearns, Victoria’s compassionate teacher Maggie Jones and no-hoper student Russell Beckman, provide extra interest and drama.
The book is structured around several carefully intertwined narrative threads, which culminate in a rather splendid, satisfying — and moving — ending.
The plot isn’t particularly complex or even well developed, but that isn’t why you read this book. Instead, Plainsong‘s strengths lie in its evocative language, the brilliant characterisation and the “message” which is essentially an examination of the ties that bind people — and communities — together, and the ways in which our day-to-day struggles (whether at school, on the farm or in the home) make up the richness of our lives.
I particularly enjoyed the references to rural living, including the depiction of cattle farming and the descriptions of the rugged landscape and the changing seasons.
They [Ike and Bobby] stamped their feet and flapped their arms in their winter coats, warming themselves and watching their father and the old McPheron brothers in their efforts. Overhead the sky was as blue as just-washed café crockery and the sun was shining brilliantly. But the afternoon was turning even colder. There was something building up in the west. From far off over the mountains the clouds were stacking up. The boys stayed near the smudge pot, trying to keep warm.
Haruf’s great skill as a writer is to make us feel involved in each of his character’s lives, whether it’s the young, slightly sad Guthrie boys who desperately miss their mother, or the shy, socially awkward McPheron brothers who are gentle, kindhearted but emotionally out of their depth when Victoria comes to live with them.
His prose, however, is what makes this book such a deeply affecting read. It is free of sentimentality. In fact, it is almost flat. Mostly it is delicate and lovely. There were times when it reminded me of Irish writer John McGahern, because it has that same simple but lyrical quality. And even the subject matter — ordinary lives lived against a backdrop of beautiful scenery and strong community ties — evoked that same feeling I get from the very best Irish fiction.
If you want to read something completely absorbing, something that will transport you into another world and introduce you to characters you will come to know and love, I cannot recommend Plainsong highly enough. It was first published in 1999 and a sequel, Eventide, was published five years later.