by Kent Haruf

Published by Knopf

301 pages, 1999

Buy it online



A Simple Tune

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards


Plainsong is the most perfectly named book imaginable. On the first page, we are told that a plainsong is, "... any simple and unadorned melody or air," and Plainsong is precisely that. A simple story of individual struggle with human problems dealt with in a very human way.

There is no opus in Plainsong. No clattering crescendo for the triumph of good over evil. Rather, the struggles we see detailed are wonderfully real and simply drawn with a story that hinges on such mortal -- almost homely -- challenges that the reading is a soothing passage to a quiet place.

The real triumph for Plainsong is not for the characters, but for their creator. Author Kent Haruf hones the feeling of simplicity with simple language -- well used -- and a sharp focus on character rather than place or even action.

Plainsong is set in a small Colorado hamlet, though the when is never clear. After a while we find that this isn't important: in fact, it enhances the feeling of small town peace. Some of the characters drive pickup trucks. Others drive black cars. Some are school teachers and there are farmers and shopkeepers and none of these vocations depend on a when or even a why.

The salient bits, however, are well drawn. Victoria Roubideaux is 17-years old and in high school. She's also, we find out early in the book, pregnant: a condition her mother finds unacceptable and she doesn't so much throw Victoria out as deny her access to her home. The father of the child was a summer romance, long since gone, and Victoria's aloneness echoes throughout much of Plainsong.

Maggie Jones works at the high school and is one of the book's strongest characters. While we may see character weaknesses in some of the residents of Holt, Colorado that Haruf has written, none of them are in Ms. Jones. Physically and emotionally she is generous, tall and beautiful. It's Jones who Victoria goes to when her mother closes the door on her pregnant daughter.

Tom Guthrie is a high school teacher whose wife, Ella, has not only ceased to love him, she's also ceased being very much of this world. In the opening chapters she's withdrawn to the guest room:

When he stepped into the room it was almost dark, with a feeling of being hushed and forbidding as in the sanctuary of an empty church after the funeral of a woman who had died too soon, a sudden impression of static air and unnatural quiet. The shades on the two windows were drawn down completely to the sill. He stood looking at her. Ella. Who lay in bed with her eyes closed. He could just make out her face in the halflight, her face as pale as schoolhouse chalk and her fair hair massed and untended, fallen over her cheeks and thin neck, hiding that much of her. Looking at her, he couldn't say if she was asleep or not, but he believed she was not. He believed she was only waiting to hear what he had come in for, and then for him to leave.

Before very long, however, she leaves the house completely, renting a small cottage in town.

While her husband has had years of watching her increasing withdrawal and using the experience of an adult to balance his mind to the inevitable, her sons, Bobby and Ike, have not. This particular brace of youngsters, at ages nine and 10, are the most welcome children I've met in fiction in recent years. They are beyond precocious. Physically and emotionally they are almost like twins. The result is that they don't need a lot of words to communicate or even to come to collective decisions. They go about their childish business thoughtfully and -- refreshingly -- quietly, perhaps aided in this by having a mother who required quiet during their formative years.

Also twin-like, but at the other end of the age scale, are Raymond and Harold McPheron. The elderly brothers have spent their lives on the ranch their parents left them when they died while the brothers were in their teens.

When Victoria decides to keep her child, Maggie Jones is faced with helping the girl find some way of making it happen. She goes to the McPherons.

Oh, I know it sounds crazy, she said. I suppose it is crazy. I don't know. I don't even care. But that girl needs somebody and I'm ready to take desperate measures. She needs a home for these months. And you -- she smiled at them -- you old solitary bastards need somebody too. Somebody or something besides an old red cow to care about and worry over. You're going to die some day without ever having had enough trouble in your life. Not of the right kind anyway. This is your chance.

It's currently fashionable in literature written in the English language to leave out the conventions normally used to designate speech. The quotation marks are often left home and -- with the work of some writers -- the reader is left at sea. I quite often find the practice annoying. I'm a great believer in form following function. Leaving punctuation out to graphically indicate you belong to some elite group of writers who don't have to follow rules seems foolish. However, in Plainsong Haruf has used the device to effect. His treatment of the dialog adds an effect almost like a diffusion filter to the whole. The result is rich and moody, like watching a period piece shot on grainy film.

Haruf has created a novel redolent of Small Town, USA. It's warm and real without even a hint of the trite. Plainsong is a graceful, elegant and eloquently-told story that will be with me for a long time. | November 1999

Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of the Madeline Carter novels: Mad Money, The Next Ex and Calculated Loss.