Plainsong, by Kent Haruf

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Holt, Colorado is a fictional small town on the High Plains east of Denver. Like most towns of the kind in both the U.S. and Canada, it is bisected by a railway line with grain elevators and stock-loading facilities on the side. The tracks are paralleled by Railroad Street, itself crossed by Main Street. Here is the first description that Kent Haruf provides of the town — Ike and Bobby Guthrie (aged nine and ten) are on the way to the train station in the early morning to pick up their bundle of the Denver News for delivery to residents:

They rode along the gravel road and passed the old vacated light plant, its high windows boarded over, and turned onto the pavement at Main Street and then bounced over the railroad tracks onto the cobblestone platform at the depot. It was a single-story redbrick building with a green tile roof. Inside was a dim waiting room smelling of dust and being closed up, and three or four highbacked pewlike wood benches set in rows facing the train tracks and a ticket office with a single window set behind black grillwork. An old green milk wagon on iron wheels stood outside on the cobblestones beside the wall. The wagon was never used anymore. But Ralph Black, the depot agent, admired the way it looked on the platform and he left it there. The passenger trains only stopped in Holt for five minutes, coming and going, long enough to allow the two or three passengers to board or get off and for the man in the baggage car to drop the Denver News onto the platform beside the tracks.

Plainsong, published in 1999, is the first Haruf novel that I have read, but I was aware before picking it up (thanks to Kimbofo at Reading Matters and David who is a welcome regular commenter here) that Holt, Colorado is the author’s created, chosen venue for his fiction. This novel introduces what may or may not be a trilogy (Eventide and Benediction are the other two, their titles suggesting at least some connection) and my understanding is that Haruf has located his other novels there as well.

In making that choice, Haruf uses a device that is also employed by a number of KfC favorites. Canada’s W.O. Mitchell locates both Who Has Seen The Wind and Jake and the Kid in a Canadian version of the prairie town (sorry, both read well before the blog began but I promise to reread them eventually). Sherwood Anderson set his outstanding story collection, Winesburg, Ohio, in another version, albeit one located well east of Colorado. And three of Larry Watson’s novels reviewed here (Montana 1948, Justice, and White Crosses) take place in his fictional town of Bentrock, Montana.

These villages have much in common. While there is certainly a bigger world outside them (a brief part of Plainsong actually takes place in Denver), life in the town is pretty much self-contained. Nothing earth-shattering, in the conventional sense of the word, happens in these communities — but they all have their own versions of crises that are every bit as troublesome to the locals. And it is the opportunity to explore the impact of these apparently minor events in detail that leads these talented authors to create their villages.

Ike and Bobby’s father, Tom Guthrie, is the first adult character we meet in the novel. He is a teacher at the local high school, a proud and devoted father, and his immediate crisis is the withdrawal of his wife from day-to-day life. Haruf introduces this in the early pages — I apologize for the length of this excerpt but it is an excellent illustration of both the tone and detail that the author uses to bring life to the community and individuals who feature in this work:

He went upstairs once more. 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 a 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. The shades on the two windows were drawn down completely to the sill. He stood looking at her. Ella. Who lay in the bed with her eyes closed. He could just make out her face in the halflight, her face as pale as schoolhouse chalk and her fair hair massed and untended, fallen over her cheeks and thin neck, hiding that much of her. Looking at her, he couldn’t say if she was asleep or not, but he believed she was not. He believed she was only waiting to hear what he had come in for, and then for him to leave.

The Guthrie family’s life is one of three storylines in the novel, so allow me to share Haruf’s introduction of the other two — they will overlap eventually, as all small town lives do. One is the story of the challenges faced by highschooler Victoria Roubideaux:

Even before she was awake she felt it rising in her chest and throat. Then she rose rapidly from bed in the white underpants and outsized tee-shirt she wore at night and rushed into the bathroom where she crouched on the tile floor, holding her streaming hair away from her face and mouth with one hand and gripping the rim of the bowl with the other while she retched and gagged. Her body was wracked by spasms. Afterward a spit-string swung from her lip, stretched, elongated, then broke off. She felt weak and empty. Her throat burned, her chest hurt. Her brown face was unnaturally pale now, sallow and hollow beneath her cheekbones. Her dark eyes looked larger and darker than ordinary, and on her forehead was a fine film of clammy sweat. She stayed kneeling, waiting for the gagging and paroxysms to pass.

Okay, the tale of a pregnant teenager in a small town runs the risk of being a cliché — trust me when I say that Haruf makes Victoria a fully-developed, interesting character as the novel progresses.

And finally, we have the McPherons, two cattle ranchers on a spread just outside of Holt (whom the author doesn’t introduce until almost a quarter of the way through the novel, but you will find there’s a reason for that):

They had the cattle in the corral already, the mother cows and the two-year-old heifers waiting in the bright cold late-fall afternoon. The cows were moiling and bawling and the dust rose in the cold air and hung above the corrals and chutes like brown clouds of gnats swimming in schools above the cold ground. The two old McPheron brothers stood at the far end of the corral surveying the cattle. They wore jeans and boots and canvas chore jackets and caps with flannel earflaps. At the tip of Harold’s nose a watery drip quivered, then dropped off, while Raymond’s eyes were bleary and red from the cow dust and the cold. They were almost ready now. They were waiting only for Tom Guthrie to come and help, so they could finish this work for the fall. They stood in the corral and looked past the cattle and examined the sky.

“This work” in that scene is determining which of the heifers are carrying a calf, vaccinating and dehorning them. You don’t have to be a rancher to know that it is an annual, routine task.

Novels like Plainsong (and those of Mitchell, Anderson and Watson) succeed only if the author can make the normal and routine — and most importantly the people who live that normal routine — involved and interesting, so that the reader can understand how disruptive the “crises” that occur really are to these individuals.

Haruf does that superbly, for this reader at least. The cast of characters and the community developed a rhythm and completeness of story that had me fully enrolled. While I have never visited a rural Colorado town, I have spent a fair bit of time in Alberta ones — by the close of Plainsong, I felt that Holt was a place I had been to more than once.

A final note on the ambiguity of the title. From my sketch of the story, you can see that it strives to be a song of life on the plains, routine as that might be. The epigraph to the book cites the dictionary definition: “the unisonous vocal music used in the Christian church from the earliest times; any simple and unadorned melody or air”.

A “simple and unadorned melody or air” — that’s as powerful an assessment of the novel as I could imagine. I have both Eventide and Benediction on hand and look forward with much anticipation to my next visit to Haruf’s Holt — like Watson’s Bentrock, I already know that it is quite a special place.

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29 Responses to “Plainsong, by Kent Haruf”

  1. kimbofo Says:

    So glad you enjoyed it, Kevin. I think of this book as an all-American version of McGahern’s That They May Face The Rising Sun/By the Lake — people living small, quiet lives filled with routine but who band together in times of crisis. Eventide is equally as special, but I’m yet to read Benediction; thanks for the reminder, I must dust it off the shelf soon.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      You are quite right about the comparison with McGahern (my review is here — it is one of my all time favorites). Creating a community, which McGahern and Haruf both do, is a very special talent for a novelist.

      And thanks for putting me on to this one. As an Albertan who professes a love for prairie fiction, I am somewhat embarrassed that an Aussie ex-pat living in London was the person who drew my attention to this 15-year-old novel set in the American west. :-)

      • kimbofo Says:

        And the person who told me about the book was Canadian author Lauren B Davis (when she took part in my Triple Choice Tuesday in July 2012), so it’s come full circle from Canada to London and back again! ;-)

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        Well that makes sense — she too likes to create small communities that have webs of internal tension.

  2. Sharkell Says:

    This is one of my favourite books of all time, I’m so glad to see you give it such a favourable review. I also loved Eventide and Benediction. I think the McPheron brothers have to be my favourite fictional characters. I only have two of Haruf’s books to go (not including his non-fiction book) but I’m hesitant to read them as then there won’t be any left!

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I was taken with the McPheron brothers as well — during my college years I worked for a summer as a relief person for a chain of rural lumber yards in Alberta. Every town I worked in had a version of these two and Haruf’s book did bring them back to mind.

      I too am guilty of “saving” the final to-be-read works of a favorite author — I’ve only got two of John McGahern’s fiction works left to go and don’t want the “first” read period to end too soon (I will be rereading him for sure).

      • sharkell Says:

        I read That They May Face The Rising Sun and thought very highly of it and have since bought it for other people. I have yet to read more but McGahern is on my list of authors to read this year.

  3. Sigrun Says:

    I really liked Eventide and Benediction, such a well tempered but at the same time unanticipated narrative voice. I’m sure I will love Plainsong too. Thank you!

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      “Well-tempered” is a good description — it is as if the author is saying “I don’t want to get you too excited, because not much exciting happens — but pay attention to what does.”

  4. David Says:

    I too am glad you liked this one, Kevin – I read it a dozen or so years ago and ever since Holt has existed in my mind more vividly than many real towns and villages I’ve been to. I wish visits to Haruf’s Holt were more frequent, but then his books probably wouldn’t be so perfectly crafted if he wrote them quicker. In the meantime I’ve been finding the (slightly more regular) visits to Mary Lawson’s fictional Struan (in ‘Crow Lake’, ‘The Other Side of the Bridge’ and ‘Road Ends’) nicely fill the gap.

    And I’m pleased to see you mention ‘Who Has Seen the Wind’ as a “KfC favourite”. I bought a copy last year but haven’t yet got around to it – your endorsement has just moved it up the tbr pile.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Struan did not come to mind for me when reading this book (I have read the first two of the Mary Lawson’s you mention but not the third) although it certainly did when I was reading the first two of Joseph Boyden’s trilogy — he features the real life Moosenee ( the First Nations community) and Moose Factory (the white town across the river).

      Bill Mitchell lived in High River just south of Calgary while I was at the Calgary Herald. I interviewed him once (when his final book appeared) and also had dinner with him and his wife a couple of times, thanks to a mutual friend. I’d read Who Has Seen The Wind (and Jake) as a youth — and was delighted to find that he was every bit as enjoyable in person as his books were. I hope you enjoy the novel as much as I did.

  5. whisperinggums Says:

    Nice review Kevin. I read this a long time ago now, probably within a year of its coming out. I remember it with a great deal of warmth. Not an earth-shattering book but a very human one. I have been to Colorado a few times, and it rang true. I enjoy good books about small communities, I must say.

  6. Patricia Says:

    Very good review of a very good novel. The crib-buying scene is my favourite moment in this book. Given that you like this novel and prairie fiction in general, and that you know Alberta well, I’m going to recommend my collection of linked stories, Catch Me When I Fall. It’s set in a Dutch-Canadian farming community in central Alberta. Here’s a link to a review of the stories in Prairie Fire Review of Books: http://ojs.lib.umanitoba.ca/index.php/prairie_fire/article/view/228/216

  7. Barbara Says:

    I read your review with a sense of relief, really, because I have such a strong affection for this book and its characters. And it is a “plainsong,” simple and unadorned…..and beautiful. So enjoyed reading your thoughtful analysis of a favorite book. Eventide didn’t resonate as strongly with me; perhaps expectations were too high.

  8. acommonreaderuk Says:

    The fact that Kim likens this one to John McGahern suggests that this is a fine novel indeed. I enjoyed reading your review and got a good impression of the book from it.

    I hope you are enjoing the WO. As you know we got our first gold last week – for the dreaded “skeleton” – something I had never heard of before. I was pleased to see the Jamaicans getting a resounding cheer yesterday despite the mediocre performance.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      It is a very fine book and the McGahern comparison is fair. Since this review was posted, Haruf has got further recognition with a shortlisting for Benediction, a continuation of his exploration of his created town of Holt.

      We are definitely enjoying the Olympics with Canada now up to 16 medals. Both Mrs. KfC and I were heavily involved in the 1988 Games in Calgary — her employer sponsored and she was involved in the Torch Relay and I was in charge of the Calgary Herald’s coverage of the Games — so we have been Winter Olympic fans for a while. Calgary did a very good job of creating a viable Olympic legacy — 110 members of Canada’s team live and train in Calgary so we know a little bit about strange sports like skeleton, four-man bob, etc.

  9. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Nice review Kevin, and I thought the quotes solid and useful. I don’t see myself reading this anytime soon, but I am going to make a note of it for the future. It sounds very good.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      It is very good and I look forward to Haruf’s other Holt novels.

      Having said that, I suspect that your crowded reading schedule might not have room for the four or five novels that he has set there. And at this stage in my reading, I would lean towards recommending Larry Watson as my author of choice in terms of created Western U.S. communities — with the acknowledgement that I have more exposure to his works.

  10. Lee Monks Says:

    I have, for whatever reason, avoided Haruf, but this review definitely puts him on the list. The recent award shortlisting put him back in mind (what do you make of that shortlist?) and here is more reliable encouragement.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I was surprised that I hadn’t heard of him when Kimbofo’s review brought him to my attention a few months back — I guess he was one of those authors who just fell through the cracks when it came to me discovering him. I did find Plainsong sedate enough that I suspect plunging quickly into more works might make them frustrating — I’ll give Haruf some space between readings because I suspect his style requires that.

      The shortlist Lee is referring to is the inaugural Folio Prize which is:

      -Red Doc, by Anne Carson
      -Schroder, by Amity Gaige
      -Last Friends, by Jane Gardam
      -Benediction, by Kent Haruf
      -The Flame Throwers, by Rachel Kushner
      -A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, by Eimer McBride
      -A Naked Singularity, by Sergio De La Pavea
      -Tenth of December, by George Saunders

      I have three (Haruf, Kushner, Gardam), although I have not yet read any of them. I’ve read enough reviews of three others (McBride, De La Pavea and Saunders) that I’m pretty sure they aren’t to my taste (the McBride might be an exception). I checked out the Gaige and Carson when the list was announced and was not excited.

      In that sense, I thought the list was pretty “conventional” — the three I have certainly are, the three I’ve heard of have received a lot of attention — so the new Prize was hardly bringing new works to our attention. Given that their selection process starts with choices from their “academy” of authors, I suspect that is going to be the case in most years. And given that four of the shortlist are written by members of that “academy”, I have some credibility issues with the selection process.

      So at this stage, I don’t think the new Prize has added much to the literary landscape. Having said that, I’d say it is only fair to give it a few years and a chance to develop its own character

      • Lee Monks Says:

        I should’ve mentioned the name of the prize: thanks for filling in my gaps there! Yes, I hadn’t really considered the selection process when I got a little giddy about this shortlist (years of Booker disappointment will do that) but there are some very good things on there, not least the McBride, which is…I’ll temper my enthusiasm and just say it’s very good indeed. Be very interested to see what you made of it.

        Jane Gardam’s another similar to Haruf: I have simply passed her over time and again, for no particular reason. I need to give both a go.

        • kimbofo Says:

          Funnily enough, I have just finished reading Gardam’s Old Filth trilogy, which I adored… really love her characterisation, her humanity and her wit, all of which reminded me very much of Kent Haruf! They are quite similar writers, in a way, capable of generating emotion in their readers without spelling anything out, and very good at writing characters that stay with you because of their warmth and kindness.

  11. Barbara Says:

    Chiming in to say how wonderful Jane Gardam is and you need to elevate her to the top of your reading pile. Old Filth is a gem. One of my favorite things about Gardam is that she is smart and she assumes you are too. No tedious overexplaining….she tells the story and lets you figure out how to feel…all by yourself! Wow, what a concept.

  12. Lee Monks Says:

    Right then – I will read Old Filth next up. Thanks…

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