Friday, December 23, 2016

Nothing Plain about Plainsong


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I've been preparing to reread Kent Haruf's "Our Souls at Night," an exquisite little novel that I'm planning to discuss with readers at the South County Library in January. ( I thought I should familiarize myself with other works by this beautiful writer, dead too soon, a man who left a glorious prose legacy. "Oh my," is all I can say. I started "Plainsong" yesterday afternoon and basically did little else until I could finish it. Then I sighed with pleasure. I needed that and most likely, so do you.

Written in 1999, set in the small farming town of Holt, Colorado, this book probably best exemplifies the simpler life that so many voters, misguided as I think they were, yearned for in 2016. Haruf tells us that the word plainsong refers to any simple and unadorned melody or air. This is his milieu. No cataclysmic drama, no bloody corpse, just the vagaries of everyday life. His characters are farmers, teachers, waitresses, and secretaries just putting one step ahead of the next, not too prone to brooding or self reflection.

But of course there is drama in everyday existence, isn't there? Nine and ten year old brothers, Ike and Bobby, fear walking by their mother's closed bedroom door. A ghost of her former self, Mrs. Guthrie lays in bed for weeks on end with her face turned to the wall, incapable of being mom or wife. Tom Guthrie cares for the boys and the farm and still manages to get to work everyday at the local high school where he teaches American History.

Victoria Roubideaux isn't the first naïve seventeen-year-old (yes, in Holt they actually are that unaware) to fall for an older guy who feeds her all the sweet nothings a lonely girl wants to hear. But when she comes up pregnant and her mom kicks her down the road, fortunately she knows that a woman like Maggie Jones might just take her in and sort her out.

And then there's the eccentric McPheron brothers, Raymond and Harold, who still work dawn to dusk on their family's cattle ranch on the outskirts of town where, in a wonderfully visual chapter, the Guthrie boys learn the ins and outs of sex while helping round up the heifers for examinations and injections.

Haruf excels at creating perfect little scenes that will take readers right back to childhood when kids were left on their own all day and no one worried about them. Ike and Bobby take advantage of a lazy summer afternoon to peak through their mother's bedroom drawers, closets, and boxes, sniffing, touching, replacing items and taking others. Later they play on the railroad tracks, placing coins on the rails to be flattened, reworked by the powerful engine as it flies through on its way to somewhere else.

I don't think that Haruf implies that people were "better" back then. There are still gossips and bullies in Holt. But his love of these folk, neighbors who have to pull together to succeed, shines through from every page. They watch out for each other. They have each other's backs. They draw from seemingly endless wells of good will when the need arises. They renew our faith in what it means to be human. Oh yes, I needed that.

1 comment:

Paul Woodside said...

Loved that book!