Kent Haruf's Plainsong

Book Reviews


by Kent Haruf

Knopf, $24 hard

On the plains the sky is bigger and the wind blows harder and this tends to make people some combination of humble, hearty, and resilient as hell. Plainsong is set in Holt, Colorado, on the rough, rugged, outstretched plains east of Denver and is infused with its landscape. The bad guys are drunk and bored and mean; the good guys are honest and hard-working. The ones in between have motivations mysterious even to themselves, and they take the abuse of the villainous and the generosity of the saintly all in stride.

There is much about Kent Haruf's latest offering that is reminiscent of any other number of novels with the same setting (Texan Joe Coomer's moving A Flatland Fable comes immediately to mind), and yet it's a story about people so soothingly basic -- they don't think too much, but they feel plenty -- that the genre is inexhaustible. Like so many books about small-town life, Plainsong is about people living catch-as-catch-can, and catching in the process so much that is heart-wrenching and extraordinary it's a wonder they hold it all in.

Plainsong's characters span four generations of rural folk, mostly teachers and farmers and kids. Rather than relying upon a progress-driven plot, the novel focuses instead on the moments at which the lives of the townspeople overlap. Two lonely teachers at the high school find solace in each other. A pregnant teenage girl, thrown out of the house by her mother, finds an unlikely home in a farmhouse with two kindly old bachelors. Another set of brothers, ages nine and 10, are abandoned by their mother and spend the rest of the book in a state of confused, unaided longing compounded by the sight of everything from a couple of jerky high school boys "sharing" a girl in an abandoned house to the last days of an elderly woman on their paper route.

A novel doesn't get more all-American than this; it's as if the whole town sprang readymade from a 1952 Sears catalog. Plainsong makes use of several stereotypes -- the mean older boys at school, the teacher with the heart of gold -- and these characters at points evoke a Norman Rockwellian dream world. Haruf's style, too, has an old-fashioned ring to it. Nearly every chapter ends with a line about the sun or the stars. The stars are invariably hard and bright, high and white, fresh and pure; the country roads are always empty. And yet Haruf is too good a storyteller to let the clichés take over. Despite plenty of opportunities, he never stoops to smarmy.

If Plainsong is ever made into a movie, it will be a romantic comedy starring Kevin Costner in a cowboy hat, and the producers will definitely make up for Haruf's integrity. But even Hollywood couldn't kill the glow of this book, such is its power. Satisfying and warm, Plainsong is as purehearted a novel as they come.

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Plainsong, Kent Haruf

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