Sunday, 7 May 2017

Plainsong by Kent Haruf

Plainsong by Kent Haruf
First published in America by Alfred Knopf in September 1999.

Where to buy this book:
Buy from independent booksellers via Alibris
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Buy the paperback from Speedyhen
Buy the paperback from The Book Depository

How I got this book:
Received a copy from friends

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I suppose it is crazy. I don't know. I don't even care. But that girl needs somebody . . . And you old solitary bastards need somebody too. Somebody or something besides an old red cow to care about and worry over.
Set in Kent Haruf's fictional landscape of Holt County, Colorado, Plainsong is a story of simple lives told with extraordinary empathy. Tom Guthrie is struggling to bring up his two young sons alone and, in the same town, school girl Victoria Roubideaux is pregnant and homeless. Whilst Tom's boys find their way forward without their mother, brothers Harold and Raymond McPheron - gentle, solitary, gruff and unpolished - agree to take Victoria in, unaware that their lives will change forever.
A novel of haunting beauty from one of America's greatest writers of our time, Plainsong is an undeniable classic that explores the grace and hope of every human life and mankind's infinity capacity for love.

Plainsong was recommended and a copy given to us by friends who were both impressed by the novel. Set in 1980s Colorado, it centres around two pairs of brothers: ageing cattle farmers Harold and Raymond McPheron, and children Ike and Bobby Guthrie; as well as Victoria Roubideaux, a teenage girl thrown out by her mother for getting pregnant. Haruf intertwines their stories to give a wonderful imagining of their small town life in Holt, Colorado. The prose is simple and compulsively easy to read which gives the whole book a real sense of poignancy. Realistic dialogue and descriptions of body language are used to great effect illustrating the often repressed emotion that the characters are unable to express for themselves. With more flowery writing, Plainsong could have become cloying and saccharine, however the stark simplicity of its language makes it very real and memorable.

My favourite characters are the McPherons. This pair of sibling brothers have lived fifty-odd years with only each other since their parents died, yet they don't hesitate to take in Victoria when she has nowhere else to go and are determined to do things properly for her. Much of the gentle humour in Plainsong comes from their sheer awkwardness, but I never felt as though Haruf was mocking them. Their kindness contrasts sharply with Victoria's mother's anger and with the actions of other mothers in the story - Ike and Bobby's mother deserts her family as the result, I think, of her drug addiction. Another character, Beckham, a failing high-school student is shown as an angry bully with his mother exhibiting exactly the same behaviours so it is depressingly obvious to see her life repeated in his. All of Haruf's characters are flawed in themselves while also trying to make the best of their lives in whatever way they know how, and he doesn't make moral distinctions between them. The writing simply states 'what is' and leaves the reader to understand which I appreciated. The novel is ultimately uplifting but without a false-feeling happy ending.

Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Kent Haruf / Contemporary fiction / Books from America


  1. This sounds sublime. I love the unusual relationships that developed throughout the novel.

    Brilliant review, as always!