Plainsong by Kent Haruf

Plainsong is a what I’d call rural town domestic fiction, it reminds me of reading Anne Tyler, they’re like the yin and yang of small town America storytelling.

The language is plain speaking and goes beyond what is said, sharing those unspoken moments that come from people who spend more time in proximity to the land and with animals and nature than humans.

We are introduced to a few members of the Holt, Denver community, each chapter headed with a name starting with the school teacher Tom Guthrie and his sons Ike and Bobby. Tom takes care of his nine, ten-year-old boys because their mother is upstairs in her darkened room, disinclined to come out.

They visit cattle ranchers, the McPheron brothers Raymond and Harold, to help out with the cows when they need an extra pair of hands. The brothers have never married, live alone in the house they grew up in, left suddenly when both parents were killed in a car accident. After helping out they pay the boys ten dollars each, against the wishes of their father.

That’s too much, their father said.
Should we give it back?
No, he said. He took his hat off and scratched the back of his head and put his hat back on. I guess not. That would be an insult. They want you to keep it. They enjoyed having you out there.
But Dad, Ike said.
Yes?
Why didn’t they ever get married? And have a family like everyone else?
I don’t know, Guthrie said. People don’t sometimes.

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Victoria is a pregnant teenager whose mother locked the door on her. She finds refuge first with Maggie, then with the McPheron brothers. Maggie  envisages the ideal solution, that could help each other out, something that would never have happened without her intervention. Victoria doesn’t tell anyone who the father is, but she tells Maggie that he was nice to her.

He told me things.
Like what for instance?
Like once he said I had beautiful eyes. He said my eyes were like black diamonds lit up on a starry night.
They are, honey.
But nobody ever told me.
No, Maggie said, they never do.

There are the innumerable kindnesses by some in the community and many cases of abandonment by others. Those who are quick to judge and those who care enough to help find solutions.

Haruf quietly explores the intricate ways of his diverse set of characters, whose lives traverse through quiet, mundane moments and dramatic turning points, showing how necessary a community is to all the individuals within it.

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Victoria asks Maggie again for help, to navigate the silence in the McPheron household.

It’s so quiet out there, the girl said. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. We eat supper. They read the paper. I go into my room and study. And that’s about it. Every day it’s like that.
Is everything else all right?
Oh, they’re kind to me. If that’s what you mean. They’re nice enough.
But they don’t talk, Maggie said.
I don’t know if they even want me out there, the girl said. I can’t tell what they’re thinking.

There is humor in the simplicity of it all, of people coming out of their shells, of the learning and there is pain, the suffering inflicted by those who need to act out on how bad they feel inside.

You’re not talking to her, Maggie Jones said. You and Raymond don’t talk like you should to that girl. Women want to hear some conversation in the evening. We don’t think that’s too much to ask. We’re willing to put up with a lot from you men, but in the evening we want to hear some talking. We want to have a little conversation in the house.

And then there are those moments of renewal, of something new that awakens, when the good that comes from making the change begins to bear fruit, to make a difference in someone’s life, knowing they are not alone, that they are loved, that humanity can shine through.

It’s a quiet comfort read, perfect for this extended period of confinement and it is the first novel of a trilogy, so next up  is Eventide, then Benediction.

20 thoughts on “Plainsong by Kent Haruf

  1. Oh, so pleased you enjoyed this. It’s one of my favourite reads. Such great characters and full of quiet understated moments. Have you ever read John McGahern’s That They May Face the Rising Sun? It shares a similar ethos and is about a married couple fleeing their busy lives in London to create a rural idyll in Ireland.

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    • No I haven’t read that McGahern, I know he’s a favourite of yours. That makes me think of an author recently recommended to me Horatio Clare and his memoir Running for the Hills. I’m not sure about that phrase ‘rural idyll’ sounds like an oxymoron to a farmer’s daughter. 🙂

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  2. I’ve been recommended to read Haruf so many times now and some have not got round to it. Perhaps now when something that is quiet and understated might prove something of an antidote to the fear and chaos that surrounds us all.

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    • I’ll have to look out for that one, for now, it’s whatever I have on the shelves or on kindle, but I’m enjoying what I’ve found there so far and what others are reading and recommending that coincides with what is gathering dust there.

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  3. Lovely review, Claire. I think you’ve captured the novel’s tone so beautifully. The prose is straightforward and unadorned and yet the emotions Haruf capture run so deep. A cliche, I know, but it really is the kind of book that stays with the reader – not only the characters but also the sense of place.

    Are you planning to move straight on to Eventide or will you leave a gap before starting it?

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    • I’m reading Eventide now, I couldn’t possibly leave that cast of characters, oh and how tender is Eventide, I feel hooked on the characters now and relived there is yet another volume to read. And then there’s still Mrs Palfrey. I’m so enjoying my own shelf at the moment, books ready for this moment, little interrupted by the usual vagaries of life.

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  4. Thanks, Claire. I loved this book too and admired the quiet, meditative tone. He’s a master of tone. You’ve inspired me to read it again and continue with the trilogy!

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    • They have been the perfect read Valorie, I’ve had them a while now, but wanted to read them together like this and now I’m happy that I did wait till now to savour them. I hope you’ve settled into some reading that nourishes you too at this time.

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  5. Pingback: Benediction by Kent Haruf – Word by Word

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