A plaintive work of fiction 

Plainsong by Kent Haruf

In that a plainsong is defined as any simple and unadorned melody, the novel Plainsong by Kent Haruf rings true. This is a storyteller’s story. It unfolds along well-worn tracks of fiction, using simple language to describe ordinary people in Holt, Colo., a small farm town. The circumstances of their lives are ordinary by any measure, common even, yet the patient manner in which Haruf reveals their motivations, their distinct selves, is truly extraordinary. Plainsong contains many quiet moments of insight, moments like those spent listening to the wind, and offers the reader an opportunity to feel reconnected to humanity.

Tom Guthrie, a school teacher at the local high school, lives with his two young sons and his wife. They are living through the last days of a marriage that is disintegrating, through the depression of a woman who is unable to get out of bed most days. The boys cannot understand their mother any more than they can see into the future, that she is soon to leave, never to return.

On that same morning in another house in Holt, a high school girl rushes out of bed with nausea to begin a day with the understanding that she is most likely pregnant. Her story runs tangentially to that of Guthrie. Between these two characters, someone whose life is just beginning and someone whose life is beginning again, everyone in the story is connected, creating an entirely plausible web of interrelationship. It is through painstaking detail that the characters in Plainsong come to stand before us as if they are at a crossroads. One choice leads them one way, while another leads them somewhere altogether different. And yet, one must wonder, how much of what occurs is open to the machinations of this thing we call free will? How much of it is indelible?

Kent Haruf’s uncluttered prose is an extension of an incisive view. The beauty of it lies in the slow and meticulous construction of ordinary moments brought out and set apart for closer inspection. Each one becomes like a still-life containing a mood, a distinct tenor. Here is a story that honors the plain struggles of people living together within the confines of a small town community.

We are left to ponder in the open spaces drawn between scenes by images like the one from the book’s beginning of Guthrie driving away: “Behind him the pickup lifted a powdery plume from the road and the suspended dust shone like bright flecks of gold in the sun.” Plainsong asks that one become a little more aware of the heartbreaking inevitability by which so much of life is played out and of the beauty to be found in things as simple yet profound as the human bonds of love and friendship.

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