Tuesday, April 15, 2008


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.

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