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.