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Plainsong Paperback – 3 Feb 2006

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Product details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Picador; New Ed edition (3 Feb. 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0330393146
  • ISBN-13: 978-0330393140
  • Product Dimensions: 13 x 2 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (70 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 583,053 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

Plainsong, according to Kent Haruf's epigraph, is "any simple and unadorned melody or air." It's a perfect description of this lovely, rough-edged book, set on the very edge of the Colorado plains. Tom Guthrie is a high school teacher whose wife can't--or won't--get out of bed; the McPherons are two bachelor brothers who know little about the world beyond their farm gate; Victoria Roubideaux is a pregnant 17-year-old with no place to turn. Their lives parallel each other in much the same way any small-town lives would--until Maggie Jones, another teacher, makes them intersect. Even as she tries to draw Guthrie out of his black cloud, she sends Victoria to live with the two elderly McPheron brothers, who know far more about cattle than about teenage girls. Trying to console her when she think she's hurt her baby, the best lie they can come up with is this: "I knew of a heifer we had one time that was carrying a calf, and she got a length of fencewire down her some way and it never hurt her or the calf."

Holt, Colorado, is the kind of small town where everyone knows everyone's business before that business even happens. In a way, that's true of the book, too. There's not a lot of suspense here, plot wise; you can see each narrative twist and turn coming several miles down the pike. What Plainsong has instead is note-perfect dialogue, surrounded by prose that's straightforward yet rich in particulars: "a woman walking a white lapdog on a piece of ribbon" glimpsed from a car window; the boys' mother, her face "as pale as schoolhouse chalk"; the smells of hay and manure, the variations of prairie light. Even the novel's larger questions are sized to a domestic scale. Will Guthrie find love? Will Victoria run away with the father of her baby? Will the McPherons learn to hold a conversation? But in this case, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and Plainsong manages to capture nothing less than an entire world--fencing pliers, calf-pullers, and all. Kent Haruf has a gorgeous ear, and a knack for rendering the simple complex. --Mary Park

Review

‘Perfectly formed, beautifully executed’ Mariella Frostrup

‘Beautifully crafted, alive and quietly magnificent. I read it in one mesmerising sitting. I had no choice; it wouldn't let me go’ Roddy Doyle

‘Plainsong is nothing short of a revelation. I don't expect to read a better novel this year. Or next, for that matter.’ Richard Russo

‘So delicate and lovely that it has the power to exalt the reader’ New York Times

‘Satisfying and warm, Plainsong is as purehearted a novel as they come’ Austin Chronicle

‘Plainsong becomes a story of mythic proportion, and not just a story about a small town in the American West, but a story of universal concern. Our story’ Boston Review

‘I’ve had the delightful experience once again of becoming so absorbed in a book that I couldn’t have slowed down if I tried. The book is Kent Haruf ’s Plainsong, the most controlled, cohesive novel I’ve come across in a long time. By this I mean that its various elements – character, setting, plot, language, even the names, even the title – all add up to a work as flawlessly unified as a short story by Poe or Chekhov . . . At certain points I was horrified by the austerity of the isolated lives in this story, and yet on every page I savoured the beauty of the telling’ Chicago Tribune

‘Plainsong is a beauty, as spare and heartbreaking as an abandoned homestead cabin, always tough but humane, never sentimental. I loved the prose, as bright and hard as the winter sun sparkling off a sandy snow bank; and the characters, scrubbed to their essentials by the extremes of the Great Plains weather. It’s a story that draws the reader like a heat mirage’ James Crumley

‘True to the country he writes about, Haruf builds his characters out of small gestures and daily rituals, not dialogue. Theirs is a deep language, like the rumble before an earthquake’ L.A. Times

‘[Haruf] writes with a plainspoken, hardscrabble edge that saves his story from sentimentality. It’s a noun-and-verb-only style that’s part Russell Banks, part Raymond Carver, but altogether his own . . . Kent Haruf ’s splendid Plainsong succeeds beautifully. Elegant in its simplicity, elemental in its power, it arouses deep and hard-earned emotions’ Newsday

‘Like all the best novels, Plainsong takes you into a world that is at once real and vividly imagined. Here is a poetry of landscape, a tender and passionate evocation of ordinary people in majestic country. It is a novel of the young and old, of the bonds that bind us to each other, and written with a kind of compassion that makes it ultimately powerfully uplifting’ Niall Williams

‘Plainsong is a well-crafted investigation into how disparate voices, each unique and interconnected, can come together in the most unlikely of circumstances . . . Haruf offers a fresh approach by creating layers which intensify and deepen as the novel progresses, alternating between each character’s life at every chapter’ Observer

‘With deftness and precision, Plainsong orchestrates the overlapping lives of these and other characters . . . Haruf ’s descriptions are sublime in their exacting simplicity . . . A beautiful, contemporary novel that reads very much like a story from another time’ Philadelphia Inquirer

‘Holt, Colorado, a tiny prairie community near Denver, is both the setting for and the psychological matrix of Haruf ’s beautifully executed new novel . . . Walking a tightrope of restrained design, Haruf steers clear of sentimentality and melodrama while constructing a taut narrative in which revelations of character and rising emotional tensions are held in perfect balance. This is a compelling story of grief, bereavement, loneliness and anger, but also of kindness, benevolence, love and the making of a strange new family’ Publishers Weekly

'Ken Haruf's prose murmurs a haunting melody through the intertwined lives of a Colorado community. It is a simple tale of life, death, love and hatred' The Times

‘A lovely read, illuminated by sparks of spare beauty’ Time

‘It’s written in a flat, palms-on-the-table style, which effectively suppresses what could have been sentimental in the story. Plenty to gulp over still, though. A first-rate, old-fashioned read’ Time Out

‘Plainsong is the unisonous austere chant of a church service, and the hundreds of thousands of fans of this book have been nothing less than devotional in their praise of Kent Haruf ’ Times Literary Supplement

‘The emotional register of Plainsong, though kept in check by understatement and a stoic approach to the vicissitudes of life, is powerful. And Haruf works a quiet magic in the way he fits his characters’ lives in with the landscape and weather that surround them’ Washington Post Book World

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First Sentence
Here was this man Tom Guthrie in Holt standing at the back window in the kitchen of his house smoking cigarettes and looking out over the back lot where the sun was just coming up. Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

4.6 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

18 of 18 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 31 Aug. 2000
Format: Hardcover
Plainsong is a modern American classic that sits comfortably in the company of works by Steinbeck and Hemmingway through to Richard Ford. It is a simple story that captures effortlessly the day to day struggles of its principal characters set against a rugged landscape that is ever brooding in the background. The book avoids sentimentality as it carefully draws you closer to superbly drawn out characters. For lovers of modern American writing, this book is a must. You will not be disappointed.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Literary Lunatic on 18 Feb. 2006
Format: Paperback
If you want thrill, this is not the book for you. It does just what it suggests on the cover and the title - it is a layering together of simple stories in an ordinary way that in its ensemble makes a beautiful melody of the lives involved. This is a book of heart and soul told in a beautiful lyrical fashion. Sure the plot is thin and that's part of the beauty - everyday life isn't jampacked with adventure. Just let the words and the characters wash over you.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By F. Pawley on 20 Jun. 2010
Format: Paperback
I started reading this yesterday morning and finished it this morning. It is a 'must' read and throughly enjoyable.

Although it doesn't have a vast story, it deals mainly with two sets of brothers x 1 pair elderly, the others young.

A man whose wife is sick, through some sort of depression, with two sons she clearly loves but cannot live with. Her husband the schoolteacher who has problems of his own in the classroom as well as at home.

Two elderly men who take in a girl because she needs a home and grow to accept her and her situation and the girl herself who realises life's mistakes go hand in hand with kindness.

I loved the banter between the two older brothers and was sorry that the book ended. It really was a totally different read for me and I must say I loved it.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Eileen Shaw TOP 1000 REVIEWER on 27 Aug. 2014
Format: Paperback
This gentle and beautiful novel is one of a kind. It tells of the people of Holt, a small town in farming country. The story encompasses Guthrie, a schoolteacher and his two sons aged 9 and 10, Ike and Bobby. Also involved are the McPherons, two elderly men who protect a young girl who has been made pregnant by an out-of-towner, Victoria Roubideaux. There were moments when the beauty of the writing overwhelmed me. It is a gentle, pastoral community, but there are people within it for whom one feels an almost visceral dislike. The depiction of the boys’ childhood experiences are brilliantly handled. Their mother has withdrawn herself from the family and their naïve attempts to bring their mother back to them are heartbreaking without ever spilling over into melodrama.

Victoria’s problem is that she has fallen for the wrong man and her solution is highly individual as, after a period of taking the conventional route, she takes up residence with the McPherons, unworldly farmers who have limited lives by choice.

The experience of reading this beautiful book is profound. There were moments when I had to put the book down and think about what it was telling me. These coincided with moments of danger for Ike and Bobby, and moments of sheer terror which held me in thrall to the complex of problems faced by people. But this is a quiet book. It’s a book that demands to be read while it puts you through some uncomfortable moments. I cannot think of another book that has had such a sublime effect on me. I simply loved it.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Robin Friedman TOP 500 REVIEWER on 30 April 2015
Format: Paperback
At the outset of his 1999 novel, Kent Haruf defines "Plainsong" as "the unisonous vocal music used in the Christian church from the earliest times; any simple and unadorned melody or air". The title is appropriate for this book which combines many voices into unity. Contemporary America is a difficult time for plainsong. As Maggie Jones, one of the novel's characters observes, "these are crazy times. I sometimes believe these must be the craziest times ever."

Haruf's novel is set in a small Colorado cattle town called Holt in the vicinity of Denver. The time of the story is not made fully clear but appears to be mid-twentieth century. The story is in the third person in chapters which alternate among several characters. They include Tom Guthrie, a middle-age high school American history teacher whose troubled and estranged wife has left him. Tom is raising is two pre-adolescent sons, Ike and Bobby who also play a prominent role in this story. There is Victoria Robideaux, 17, who has become pregnant out of wedlock and whose boyfriend has abandoned her. As Victoria's story opens, her mother bars her from her home following the discovery of the pregnancy. Maggie Jones is a ubiquitous presence who does not have her own chapter. She is a high school teacher whose story becomes intertwined with Guthrie's and with Victoria's. When Victoria is turned away from home, Mollie persuades a pair of elderly bachelor brothers who live together and own a successful cattle ranch, Raymond and Harold McPheron, to take her in.

Most of the primary characters, including Guthrie, his wife, Victoria, Maggie, and the McPheron brothers lead lonely lives, as do some of the book's secondary characters.
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