Plainsong is a well executed novel that displays Kent Haruf’s understanding of people and love for the Great Plains. The novel centers around a few different characters with the chapters named simply for whose section of the story is being told. These characters include: Victoria Roubideaux – a pregnant teenager without many options, Guthrie – a local teacher trying to raise his sons as his marriage disintegrates, the McPheron brothers – two old bachelors who raise cattle, and Ike and Bobby – Guthrie’s sons.
Haruf’s writing is full of compassion, tenderness and a knowledge of the human condition. His characters are complex and lead lives full of small triumphs and at times crushing disappointments. They do not always make wise choices, or have qualities we would call exemplary, however, Haruf has treated even the most shameful and sad characters with respect. The reader can understand how these characters came into being, how the small town of Holt, sparse and windswept, might produce grudges and loneliness.
There are times when it seems as though the novel might swing towards melodrama or sentimentality, but Haruf manages to keep it from crossing that line. Partly, this is accomplished by not adding in an editorialized narration. Events are seen, but not expounded on, in some cases not even by the characters in the novel, whom are a reserved, tight-lipped cast. Some of my favorite parts of the book were the chapters following Ike and Bobby. It is in these chapters that the reader re-experiences the world of a child, which is full of unknowns and half-understood demands. Ike and Bobby navigate the world of adults as best they can while balancing their needs for love and attention against their distrust and lack of understanding of the people around them.
Once you start this novel, you may find it hard to put down. I read it in a couple of days, and look forward to reading Eventide, which follows the lives of these characters.