by Kent Haruf
“Often in the morning they rode out along the tracks on Easter and took their lunch and once rode as far as the little cemetery halfway to Norka where there was a stand of cottonwood trees with their leaves washing and turning in the wind, and they ate lunch there in the freckled shade of the trees and came back in the late afternoon with the sun sliding down behind them, making a single shadow of them and the horse together, the shadow out in front like a thin dark antic precursor of what they were about to become.” ― Kent Haruf, Plainsong
Plainsong is a form of medieval church music that involves chanting; it emerged around 100 A.D. It does not use any instrumental accompaniment, instead, it uses words that are sung. It is this that suggests a structure that orders the story told by Kent Haruf in his beautiful novel. The narration inhabits short vignette-like chapters about a small group of people who inhabit a town set on the stark but beautiful High Plains of Colorado.
It is in the small town of Holt, Colorado, that Tom Guthrie, a high school teacher, struggles to keep his life together and to raise his two boys after their depressed mother first retreats into her bedroom, and then moves away to her sister's house. The boys, not yet adolescents, have a paper route while attempting a normal life of boyhood; yet they have difficulty making sense of adult behavior and their mother's apparent abandonment. In one touching scene the boys bond with an elderly customer and help her as she makes cookies. A pregnant teenage girl, kicked out by her mother and rejected by the father of her child, searches for a secure place in the world. And far out in the country, two elderly bachelor brothers work the family farm as they have their entire lives, all but isolated from life beyond their own community. While they are isolated, the brothers are not immune to the need to love and be loved. Their role in the story is central and demonstrates how they are able to grow and redeem lives. Each of the main characters demonstrate both the potential for human kindness and the consequences of difficulties, both due to their own flaws or those of others.
From these separate strands emerges a stoic vision of life--and of the community and landscape that bring them together. Through Haruf's spare prose on every page these lives emerge with a beauty and endurance that is impressive. Plainsong is a story of the abandonment, grief, and sorrow that bind these people together. It is also a story of the kindness, hope, and dignity that redeem their lives. Utterly true to the rhythms and patterns of life, Plainsong is a tremendous novel that deserved its nomination for a National Book Award.
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