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Plainsong (2000)

Plainsong (2000)
3.96 of 5 Votes: 5
0375705856 (ISBN13: 9780375705854)
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Plainsong (2000)
Plainsong (2000)

About book: The glamour of the National Book Awards ceremony blows away the fusty air of the book world every November. Big publishers buy up acres of the banquet hall at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square. Little houses splurge a year's publicity budget on the $1,000-a-plate dinner. Even without the medals hanging from their necks, the nominees would stick out: New authors appear in ill-advised outfits, like red Nehru jackets or brocade gowns inspired by "King Lear," choices probably pushed on these quiet, pensive writers by family members who insist they live it up for once. Famous authors in their own tuxedos or black dresses with mile-long shawls look mildly bored amid a swirl of friends and flacks. Really famous nominees don't show up, ensuring the most dramatic presence of all.Kent Haruf couldn't have looked more uncomfortable amid all this glitz in 1999. A teacher at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, he was there because his third novel, "Plainsong," had been nominated. Amid the New York literati, he had the demeanor of a man who was skeptical of the hoopla, a little embarrassed by all the attention, but too humble to do anything but endure until he could get back home.The author is a good match with his work. "Plainsong" didn't win that night (the honor went to "Waiting," by Ha Jin), but it spent months on the bestseller list, gathering fans who responded to this quiet story about a little town on the High Plains east of Denver.Now comes a sequel called "Eventide" with a quarter-million first printing and a well-timed made-for-TV version of "Plainsong" broadcast last month on CBS. Mr. Haruf should prepare to be uncomfortable again: This gathering storm of publicity is entirely deserved, no matter how incongruous it is with his stark and simple tale.Readers of "Plainsong" will enter "Eventide" running, but newcomers needn't worry about picking up here. Once again, the story rotates through the lives of several families in Holt, Colo., most of whom appeared earlier. At the center are the McPheron brothers, crusty ranchers trying to keep stiff upper lips as they help Victoria and her baby pack for college. Two years ago, they took in Victoria when her mother threw her out for getting pregnant, and though the four of them made a strange and awkward family, the old men can't imagine life without her now.In town, 17 miles away from the McPheron ranch, Luther and Betty Wallace struggle to negotiate the complexities of food stamps and utility bills, child rearing and medical care. The family's precarious equilibrium is easily jostled by trouble at school or a visit from Betty's violent uncle. Their social worker never flags, though she's desperate to numb herself to the trouble in Holt County. She's always ready to serve as their counselor, financier, or chauffeur if it will keep them together, but she can't suspend the sense of doom that hovers over these mentally impaired parents.In fact, "Eventide" presents a grim sampling of family life. Eleven-year-old DJ cares for his infirm grandfather all alone, supervising the old man's monthly trips to the tavern as best he can. Next door, Mary Wells tries to maintain a pleasant home for her three little girls, but with no job and no word from her husband, the economics of survival grind away that hope.This hardscrabble story kicks up a dust cloud of melancholy that will sting even the most hardened readers' eyes. The fractured families that Haruf portrays - particularly the wary children - live in a world without any of the financial and social supports familiar to people who can drop $24.95 for a novel. A touch of maudlin pity would have soiled the effect, but Haruf never gives us the easy comfort of feeling superior.The relentless assaults of illness, meanness, or bad luck blow some of these people into oblivion. Angry cattle can maim, so can drunken uncles. But there are countervailing forces in this sparse Colorado landscape. You can see evidence in the comforting silence of the McPheron brothers' chores, in the extra effort of the Wallaces' social worker, and in neighbors' readiness to step in when routines are shattered. There are currents of affection here more persistent than strong, but ultimately capable of etching even the hard rock of these people's lives.It works only because Haruf describes their ordinary tragedies in prose that's strikingly unadorned. Their struggles are raised by this clarity to such an extraordinary vision that at the end of some chapters I was left wondering, Who in America can still write like this? Who else has such confidence and humility?Quotations don't do it justice, anymore than a tuft of prairie grass could convey the grandeur of an open plain. Every decoration has been stripped away, leaving a narrative that almost never hazards an interior thought or authorial comment, forcing the story to rest entirely on Haruf's flawless selection of detail and ear for dialogue.This is easy to do badly, as a thousand Hemingway imitators know, but Haruf never missteps, and I wish his books were required reading for anyone learning to write. Not that everyone should sound like him, of course, but his prose serves as a corrective to the super-hip, self-consciously clever storytelling that lures too many writers onto the rocks. After all, not everyone can write like Zadie Smith. (Even Zadie Smith can't always write like Zadie Smith.)"Eventide" never swells with climactic tragedy or heartrending triumph. Haruf holds the pace of his narrative to the slow passage of winter on the plains, letting moments of salvation thaw between hard frosts. But when Raymond McPheron finally finds the comfort he's lived without for so long, it's an affirmation of his nobility and patience that's utterly believable, quietly reassuring.This review first appeared in The Christian Science Monitor:

Kent Haruf tells us about two sets of brothers living on the High Plains of Eastern Colorado. Don’t think scenic Rocky Mountains; think flat Texas Panhandle. The minimalist writing of Plainsong mimics the unadorned music of the title as well as the sparse landscape that is home for its characters. Indeed, the interlocking storylines are melodious, not harmonious. Young brothers, Ike and Bobby, miss their mother, who has moved to Denver because she suffers from severe depression. As the boys cope with the absence of a female, while being cared for by their schoolteacher father, Guthrie, they learn about death in the animal world and in the physical world. Bachelor ranchers, Raymond and Harold McPheron, understand cows, but the brothers know nothing about human females until a pregnant teenager moves in with them. I appreciated how these kindly, old men, so set in their routine, cope with the presence of a female, and I laughed with them as they tried to interest Victoria in farm reports and pork bellies. Their unconditional love for her and their willingness to change, moved me.In addition to the obvious parallels between the sets of brothers, parallels also exist between the animal world and the human world. In alternating chapters, cows get pregnant, humans get pregnant; cows go crazy, humans go crazy; a horse dies, a human dies.Light is a major presence in the novel. Haruf describes the light in almost every scene: sunlight; starlight; lamplight; cigarette light. I picture monks chanting plainsong as part of liturgical worship where the time of day is detectable only by the slant of the light through plain windows, and I suspect, that upon close reading, the structure of this book may mimic the Daily Hours. Haruf presents his story in a limited third person point of view, so the reader never has access to the internal thoughts of the characters. We know only their actions and spoken words. Personally, I like to get inside characters’ internal worlds, so this is not my preferred narrative structure.Haruf is a very good writer, but his style does not cater to my personal taste. I respect that Haruf adopts the minimalist tone which mimics the landscape of the High Plains where the land is dry and flat, and the sky and the sun are important complements to the barrenness. I am familiar with this unremarkable landscape but bear it no special affection-- thus, my mixed reaction to this book. Some prefer their land and their stories to be unadorned, whereas I prefer my land green and growing and my words lush and lyrical; moreover, I prefer polyphony to monophony. This is a matter of taste, so I heartily recommend this book to those who prefer minimalist writing, and I have tremendous respect for the skill of Haruf in writing like this. Haruf continues the story of these characters in Eventide, and I admire his skill enough to read it, but I may wait until I am suffering a cloying sensation from too much baroque and in need of stark simplicity. To everything there is a season, and, some day, I will be in the mood for another Gregorian chant. September 23, 2012
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Rachel Bash
I'm from the Midwest, and though I agree with my East and West coast friends about some of its annoying (even madening) attributes (odd worship of football for one), I still believe it has a quiet, plain, yet surprising beauty all its own. This book captures that perfectly--the prose is spare, wiped clean of word-clutter, like the view I get out my window as I drive home across Iowa's corn fields. It's unadorned, but beautiful and communicative for that; because it says so little, what it does say stuns, amuses, punches in the gut. Kurt Vonnegut once said that the most powerful sentence in James Joyce's "Eveline" came towards the end, as she faced the inevitable: "She was tired." That's the kind of resonance I find here. Characters come to life on the sparest of stages, and perhaps because they stand out so strong against that stark background, it's easy to love them.
The first page of this book has a definition of the word plainsong. It is:"any simple and unadorned melody or air."I appreciated this book more than I liked it. The author, Kent Haruf, writes with a vividly clear but simple prose about a small town in northeastern Colorado, a couple of hours from Denver, whose occupants struggle with their choices, their relationships and their opportunities.Kind of a universal story, honestly, but in this setting - so sparse and empty - Haruf managed to develop characters that I felt like I knew. Perhaps it's growing up in Montana, where there are small towns to spare, but his book had a realness to it that felt uncomfortable to me. I had teachers like Tom Guthrie. Men who taught because it was a job, not because they were particularly suited for the profession. I was aware of girls like Victoria Roubideaux, young and troubled (in this case pregnant), misfits from the small town core.There are many characters throughout the book, some better developed than others. Tom Guthries' sons, Bobby and Ike, who want more than either of their parents are able to give them. The McPherson brothers, old bachelors who live alone on a farm. The teenage redhead, who frightens me and makes me angry until I realize he mirrors the attitudes and behaviors of his own parents. Maggie Jones, who is the poorest developed and thus the most likable. As the book approaches its halfway point, their lives start to intersect rather than orbit. Even as the intersections begin, lives aren't drastically changed or made better. There is some growth and a hint at tenderness, particularly when the old McPherson brothers take in Victoria, who is alone and pregnant at 17.When I finished the book, I snapped it shut and shouted, "Why do I read stuff like this?!" Days later, I still feel melancholy about Holt, Colorado and its inhabitants who seem to have so little going for them.As frustrated as I was by the end, because there was no resolution of conflict, no great triumph or lesson learned or bridges crossed, I can quietly nod "well done" to the author for staying true to the apparent purpose of his book. This is a story of "what is" more than "what happened."It is a plainsong.
I bought this book in Salem, but didn't read it until I was in Montana, which is fitting for the book. Read it again last week, and as it's been a couple of years, I got to enjoy again, as though for the first time, the evocative language of Haruf's writing.The texture of the language brought out the taste of a bitter winter Colorado wind, rushing along the flat, barren land. The plain spoken people were aptly described, rendering them not necessarily lovable, but realistic, living their lives in the shadow of a rough landscape, where men are men, and so are the women. (Maybe that's Alaska, but you get my point.)Haruf weaves an altogether tragic, and yet still humorous story of the lives of several people in a small western town. The troubles that the boys run into throughout the course of the book are the worst part - tragedies that mature them faster than their 10 or 11 years. But the humor of the interaction of the older brothers is a wonderful counterpoint.The language is at times rough and graphic, but if it wasn't, it wouldn't be realistic. The ending could strike readers as sappy as well, but I thought it was fitting to describe a people who aren't downtrodden by all the distressing events in life, but rather who take them quietly, figuring it's their lot in life, no matter how fair or unfair.I loved it and highly recommend it.
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