Review of “Plainsong” by Kent Haruf

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.

Rating: 3/5

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

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15 Responses to Review of “Plainsong” by Kent Haruf

  1. This book has crossed my path on many occasions and may have even owed it a few time, but never read it, as I just didn’t feel it was for me. Sorry it was just a so so read for you.

  2. JoAnn says:

    I read this one years ago, but don’t remember much about it. Must’ve enjoyed it more than you did because I went on to read Eventide, too.

  3. Barbara says:

    I think I’ll pass on this one. Too many books I’m excited about to bother with one that didn’t pass muster with you.

  4. zibilee says:

    I have had this book on my shelf for a few years now, and have never gotten up the gumption to read it. Did you know that there was a sequel to it as well? I am not sure how I would feel about this one. It sounds interesting, but also like it’s sort of emotionally distant. The review was wonderful though, and very emotive.

  5. sandynawrot says:

    I like to spin myself as an open-minded person who reads a little of everything, but honestly this sounds like it might be too gentle for me. Although I did grow up in a rural area, and like books that bring that back to me. Have to wait for a gentle mood to come around!

  6. Jenners says:

    I felt a bit like you did when I read this book. Something about it kept me outside of the story and I never felt emotionally invested. I did like how the story did seem to echo the idea of plainsong though.

  7. BermudaOnion says:

    This does sound interesting, but I need some emotion when I’m reading a book, so I may pass on it.

  8. Honestly this one seems too cerebral for me! Thanks for the great review:)

  9. Aarti says:

    I’ve never heard of this book or the author before, but that doesn’t really surprise me as it doesn’t really seem to be my style. Glad you gave it a go so I don’t have to 😉

  10. stacybuckeye says:

    Jenners sent me her copy a year or so ago and I still haven’t read it. Your review doesn’t have me moving it to the top of my 2012 pile!

  11. harvee says:

    A book that sings stories sounds delightful. I’d like this one.

  12. Julie P. says:

    Hmmmmmm. I’ve toyed with picking this one for our book club. Maybe it’s a good thing that I haven’t.

  13. Trish says:

    It sounds like a really beautiful book (don’t think I’ve heard of it), but I also prefer to be a bit invested in the characters I’m reading about.

  14. Margot says:

    I’ve had this one on my list for quite some time but just haven’t gotten around to it. I like the idea of “singing” the story but it hasn’t intrigued me enough to pick it up.

  15. Beth F says:

    I listened to this and the sequel and loved them. I was very emotionally connected to the characters. I read both in my preblogging days, but I featured Plainsong.

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