Plainsong tells the story of a handful of people in the small town of Holt, in eastern Colorado. Victoria Roubideaux, a seventeen-year old teenager, realizes she is pregnant. When she tells her mother, she is thrown out of the house and forced to seek refuge in the home of a teacher, Maggie Jones. Meanwhile, Tom Guthrie, history teacher at the local high school, deals with the departure of his depressive wife to Denver, Colorado, to live with her sister. Their two young boys (aged ten and eight), are left to grapple first with the emotional and then the physical loss of their mother. On a farm seventeen miles south of Holt, the McPheron brothers maintain care of their cattle stock with the occasional help of Guthrie and his boys. The McPherons, whose parents died when they were both very young, have never left the farm and have always lived together; like an old married couple, they have grown into each other’s habits both gracefully and not. When Maggie Jones’ approaches them asking for a favor—that they’d offer their home as a safe place for Victoria Roubideaux to live and prepare for the birth of her baby—they accept the request and begin a new life as co-fathers, caretakers, protectors. The book is a powerful, carefully-done weaving of storie. It's like a painting: a comic strip, a political cartoon, and a storybook where, in the end, good reigns over evil.
It’s fitting that I finished Plainsong in the early hours of Mother’s Day. I was told to read this book by multiple people; first by a good writing friend of mine, then my own mother, then my aunt, then a writing mentor. “This book renewed my faith in people,” that first friend told me. I cringed a little at that, thinking isn’t that what the Bible is for? But literature can do it too. Should do it too. (Haven’t I written that in more than one blog post for 52-18? Yes.) Literature is more than just stories told and words written, it’s about hope, and finding meaning for living. This is a book that gives bulk to that notion.
Plainsong glows; the connections which arise between unlikely characters prove that personal struggles are both 1) consequences of our own bad decisions/bad luck, and 2), opportunities for helping others and moving beyond our pain. Victoria, though pregnant (and in high school), made a choice to go to Maggie Jones, which in turn led Maggie Jones to talk to two the lonely brothers. The brothers, though hesitant, chose to take Victoria in. Tom Guthrie’s boys, though saddened and confused by the loss of their mother, applied themselves to the world around them, learning and reaching out to people they trusted and knew would be there for them.
It’s all so good, the story so lovely and organically composed that I can’t think of anything wrong with it. Please read this book. Please, please. (I haven’t said that about every book I’ve read, right? No. I haven’t).
Kent Haruf writes beautifully, using a straightforward style and less punctuation than most writers do--than I do. The story is easy to read and well-balanced in its varying points-of-view, each chapter switching from one character's perspective to another's. Each viewpoint is compelling; I want to hear each character's voice, each one's thoughts and proddings. Haruf does dialogue well, though he never uses quotation marks, which gives a sort of unending, continuous quality to his prose, as if their actions and words were not separate, but intricately dependent on each other.
Here's a section from early in the book, before Victoria moves in with the McPherons but is already at Maggie Jones' house:
She was certain of it. In herself, she was. But Maggie Jones said, It happens. For all kinds of reasons, for reasons you can't even anticipate or expect or know about. It could be something else. You just don't always know what's going on. You want to be sure.
Even though she felt in herself that she was sure because for one thing she had never missed before. Until the last months she'd always been as predictable as clockwork, and because for some time she'd been feeling different, not just the way she felt in the morning when she was still at home and could feel it rising even before she was all the way awake, or when her mother came in and made it worse smoking, standing over her in the bathroom watching her, but other times too when she had a private feeling that she didn't know how to talk about or to explain to anyone.