Kent Haruf’s Plainsong is an aptly named novel: a plain story in plain writing style. My copy contains a dedication by a previous owner: “Enjoy – the words of this novel ring true; always have told the children: ‘Life is what happens to you while you are making other plans!'” – which seems like a fitting description: Plainsong tells of the day-to-day struggle of everymen and -women living in Holt, Colorado, a ficticious town. There is no big conflict and no happy end – just plain life. The name and place and time don’t matter – Holt is a cipher for every Small Town, USA.
There are many characters in the book, but two of them drew most of my attention: The first one is Tom Guthrie, a history teacher at the local high school, who takes care of his young sons, Ike and Bobbie, after his wife withdraws into herself and finally moves to her sister in Denver. In the course of the novel, Tom gets together with Maggie Jones, another teacher and a warm and generous woman, who is the connection between most of the characters.
The second central person is Victoria Roubideaux, a pregnant 17-year old high school student. When her alcoholic mother denies her entry to her home, Maggie arranges for her to stay in the farm house of the good-hearted, but eccentric and socially inept McPheron brothers, who live miles out of town.
Kent Haruf describes the lifes and characters of these people very skillfully and Plainsong makes a gripping read. It is a great book and I whole-heartedly recommend it to everybody interested in American novels.
However, after putting it down, I felt ambivalent about the book’s morals, which were a bit to conservative for my taste. Plainsong is carefully constructed to cover all generations: there are kids (Ike + Bobbie, Victoria), middle-aged adults (Tom Guthrie, Maggie Jones), and elderly people (McPheron brothers, an elderly lady that befriends Ike and Bobby). And all three groups have clear positions: teenagers are bad and get into trouble with sex, drugs and violence. Victoria’s short stay in the big city with Dwayne, the irresponsible father of her child, becomes a predictable disaster. The Old offer security and values, especially the taciturn McPherons. The age inbetween is marked by insecurities (partner, job) and abuse. The best example is Tom, who looks for a new partner and fights with the parents of one of his students.
Haruf is too good a writer to drown the story in his conservative world-view, but it is clear that the farm, not the city, is the place for good values.