I can’t imagine that I would ever have the courage to seek a partner like Addie does in Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night. That novel, published posthumously, about a couple bonding in a way that a gossiping community does not quite get, is a sensitive story that I have enthused much about. This led me to Plainsong.
Plainsong, another Kent Haruf story also set in fictional Holt, Colorado, is about ordinary people connecting and coping with everyday events – in such a way that would not, you would think, register on Hollywood’s radar. (But, according to Rotten Tomatoes, a TV movie was indeed made in 2004.)
Plainsong was first published with much acclaim in 1999. The 2015 edition includes an introduction by Peter Carey who refers to the influence of Hemingway and Faulkner. Hemingway’s style, for its paring back, and Faulkner’s, As I Lay Dying, for ‘… the switching points of view between one chapter and the next,’ are discussed: Haruf ‘… shares his characters silent pain without us stopping to stare and wonder how.’
The chapters, simply titled by one or two of the character’s names, are stand-alone tales that reveal some big moments, some small. Although not immediately linked, each chapter advances the story to a thoughtful ending. Writing for the New York Times, William Yardley says, ‘Critics praised the spare sentences and the depth and believability of his characters and their circumstances.’
Maggie Jones, a caring school teacher, is a voice of reason as she sees a solution for Victoria, the pregnant schoolgirl, with the McPheron brothers, a couple of old bachelor ranchers. Maggie also supports Guthrie, a fellow teacher and father of two young boys who are in the process of losing their depressed mother.
These characters are hard to leave. You find yourself thinking about them, caring about them, worrying for them, long after the last page, as if they are real. You might find yourself talking back to Victoria: why couldn’t you see the trouble ahead, or willing Guthrie to back off: can’t you see he’s baiting you, or feeling anxious about the boys out alone, likely lure for a hiding on a cold Holt night.
The links with animals create another layer for accessing the pain of loss and departure, and the high school is a hotbed of tension and conflict.
Haruf writes the Plainsong dialogue without quotation, which annoys some people, but for me this creates a pace that makes the story hard to put down.
Also the sense of place is so strong that it feels familiar. It is not hard to imagine the aging McPheron brothers remote farm, or the public bar in Holt, or the massive countryside surrounding the small-town. But no bells, whistles or gratuitous scenes here; the writing is plain, plausible and authentic.
Sadly, this author, who shunned notoriety for his wonderful writing, died at his home in Salida, Colorado at the age of 71.