Poetic evocations of an American landscape
Holt, Colorado, the setting of Plainsong, is a lonesome kind of place. This small town east of Denver seems to have little to distinguish it from other rural communities of the Great Plains. But it is here that seven lonely people find themselves drawn together into a community of their own, an extended family both plainspoken and good-hearted.
Their stories are told individually at first, in alternating sections and points of view. Tom Griffith, a high school teacher with an invalid wife and two sons, brings trouble down on himself when he stands up for one of his students, Victoria, pregnant and abandoned. Tom's colleague, Maggie Jones, arranges for the young woman to find shelter at the ranch of the McPheron brothers, a pair of aging and crusty bachelors who've farmed and lived alone most of their lives.
"Well, look at you," she tells them. "You're going to die some day without ever having had enough trouble in your life. Not of the right kind, anyway. This is your chance." To them the idea of sheltering the pregnant Victoria sounds like a big dose of pandemonium and disruption. But, aware that they've grown crotchety and set in their ways, they decide to take a chance for once.
The resulting mix of comedy and lighthearted misunderstandings is one of the most engaging features of the story. When both Tom and Maggie's troubles dovetail into the lives of the irascible McPherons, the story takes on an emotional richness made stronger by the deceptively simple and understated narration.
This style, as well as the setting of Plainsong, is reminiscent of Cormack McCarthy's Border Trilogy. And, like McCarthy, Haruf takes his time with gritty ranch details such as how to autopsy a dead horse or determine if a cow is pregnant. He also leaves several loose ends in the novel's closing scenes, which could invite a sequel.
But as it is, the unresolved elements of the plot tend to increase the authenticity of this story of these few braided lives. Together they become the kind of simple and unadorned melody suggested by the title Plainsong.
James William Brown is the author of the novel Blood Dance (Harcourt Brace). He teaches fiction writing in Boston.