The epigraph tells us that “plainsong” is “the unisonous vocal music used in the Christian church from the earliest times; any simple and unadorned melody or air.” It is definitely in the second sense of meaning that Haruf creates the libretto for Holt, Colorado, a small town in the High Plains east of Denver.
The singers are varied: Tom Guthrie is a high school history teacher whose wife is absent first mentally and then physically; Maggie Jones, also a high school teacher, is in love with Tom; Victoria Roubideaux is 17, pregnant, and evicted by her mother; and Harold and Raymond McPheron are two old bachelor brothers who take in Victoria at Maggie’s request. In addition, we become privy to the impressions of Guthrie’s two sons Ike (10) and Bobby (9), whose lonely peregrinations around the town enable us to meet some of the other denizens of Holt through the eyes of children.
Haruf sings their stories in alternating chapters, using a spare prose that emphasizes the quotidian concerns of rural Colorado, focusing on the land and its centrality to those who make their living from it. The life cycles of horses and cows are as much a part of their existence as the life cycles of people, and affects them just as deeply.
Haruf shows us mean, bullying, abusive behavior, as well as kindness, generosity and decency. There is plenty of each in Holt. He doesn’t expose interior motives; he just paints the picture of these inhabitants against the big western skies and asks us to listen to their songs and get a glimpse of this slice of America.
At the end of the book, all the solo parts combine in an ensemble piece that ends cinematically, with the camera of the author’s eye panning back and looking at the rural scene he has constructed, with the men and women and children in small groupings, and the breeze blowing and the barn swallows coming out to hunt for lacewinged flies in the dusk. You can almost hear the music cueing up; maybe not a plainsong chant, but something with epic sweep, to highlight the quiet majesty and everyday heroism of these ordinary lives in an ordinary place.
Evaluation: This quiet book gives an excellent picture of life in a rural community. Because the author stays on the exteriors of the characters, however, I never got emotionally invested in the book; it was more like looking at a picture album.
Note: This book was a finalist for the 1999 National Book Award for fiction.
First published in the U.S. by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., 1999