” In the bedroom he removed a sweater from the chest of drawers and put it on and went down the hall and stopped in front of the closed door. He stood listening but there was no sound from inside. When he stepped into the room it was almost dark, with a feeling of being hushed and forbidding as in the sanctuary of an empty church after the funeral of a woman who had died too soon, a sudden impression of static air and unnatural quiet. ” (Guthrie, p.6)
Plainsong follows the lives of a Colorado community as Haruf interweaves the stories of a lonely teacher whose wife suffers from a nervous breakdown, a teenage pregnant girl thrown out of her house, a pair of boys abandoned by their mother, and two decrepit old bachelors who know more about farming and cattle than they do about people. The slow beginning quickly sneaks up on me, as the narrative of these unadorned lives, each allowing the challenge to run its course, builds in strength.
Plainsong is a quiet novel and Haruf executes the interactions of his characters with an unadorned manner. There is nothing cloying about the book, but gracious and redolent with the simplicity of a story based on human decency. What drives this novel forward and fully realizes its purpose is Victoria Roubideaux, a pregnant teenage girl who is thrown out of her mother’s house. Her teacher, maggie Jones, asks the McPherons brothers to take the girl in until she gives birth. Now these old brothers, whose folks died in a highway truck wreck when they were very young, have always stayed at home, farming and ranching. Crusty, lonesome, and independent, they possess an antiquity of manner and outmoded punctiliousness. Their interaction with Victoria is both humorous and heart-warming. Meanwhile, Tom Guthrie, whose wife withdraws into a rented apartment and decides to leave him and the boys, finds himself entangled in the life of a lying, pampered, and bullying student, who makes slanderous comment about the pregnant girl. The boy’s parents also attempt to blindside him at the school board meeting.
They called last night and said they would take you, that they’d try it. That’s great deal for them to say. I think it will be all right. You don’t have to be at all afraid of them. They’re about as good as men can be. They may be gruff and unpolished but they don’t mean anything by that, it’s only they’ve been alone so much. Think of living your life alone for half a century and more, like they have. (Victoria Roubideaux, p.123)
In Ike and Bobby Guthrie we find the younger versions of the McPherons: two boys who watch their mother recede and witness all the mortifications of flesh a town can offer. As Victoria’s pregnancy progresses, she once again withdraws to the mistake that is the cause of her current trouble, but not without the McPherons brothers’ intervention. In a way, she wakes up at last to a sense of where she is.
Plainsong is beautiful in its plainness. It quietly evokes the kindred spirits and simple decency in us that are either forgotten or distrusted. Haruf steers clear of sentimentality and melodrama while constructing a taut narrative in which the revelations of characters and their rising emotional tensions are held at perfect balance. His prose is fine and spare but the language deep. The touching humor of their awkward interaction endows the story with a heartwarming dimensionality. Every once a while comes a book that reminds me of what great literature should be, and Haruf is in the league of my favorite prose stylists like Jon Hassler and Wallace Stegner.
301 pp. Vintage Contemporaries. Paper. [Read/
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