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. They bear troubles before and during the events related in the five months or so covered in the novel. Each character also has to deal with a good deal of enmity and wrongdoing, including the two young boys, Ike and Bobby. A sense of community and shared spirit cautiously develops.
The writing is deceptively simple in this novel. I found most striking the way in which mundane aspects of life are described in detail and in juxtaposition with the more telling aspects of the story such as an unwanted pregnancy, a broken marriage, trouble in the school, and the search for love. The life of cattle farmers, from separating pregnant animals from the others, is presented with some detail as is the process of baking oatmeal cookies in a lonely, ailing elderly woman's home. The Guthrie boys are witness to a gruesomely described autopsy of a dead horse as well as to a considerable amount of gruesome human activity. The descriptions of everyday and not so every day activities in the life or a rural town add a great deal of texture to the story.
The narrator's voice in the book contrasts with the voices of the characters. The narrator tends to speak at length in sentences which can be long and often beautifully rhythmic as he describes events and people. The characters tend to the laconic when they speak. Their dialogue is set out without the use of quotation marks. This is a relatively common device which might appear a gimmick. In this book, the device is used with purpose as it integrates the narrator's large picture of events with the perspective of each individual.
The story lines are simple but they are held together by the character development and the understated writing. I had a sense of both the hardness of life and the formation of an American community. The book is perceptive, thoughtful, and refreshingly non-ideological in a time plagued by ideology. "Plainsong" was my first experience with Kent Haruf. I enjoyed reading this fine novel.