I loved the way this book was written. Haruf writes about a small rural town, Holt, Colorado, in a beautiful way. It’s the story of Tom, a teacher whose wife is going through some kind of depression and leaves him and their two boys. And Victoria, a teenager whose mother kicks her out of the house when she becomes pregnant. And the old McPheron brothers, who run their farm and don’t have too much to do with the rest of the world.
At times I felt these characters were archetypes, and maybe they are, but Haruf’s writing really brings them to life. It wasn’t until long after I put the book down, having savored every minute, that I started to think that some of the characters weren’t entirely multidimensional. By that I mean the good characters are very good (though not perfect) and the bad characters are very bad. Which is a little unfortunate since this book is so very, very good.
It’s the little things that bring these characters to life. The boys buying their depressed mother a gift with all their pocket money. Tom, in a moment of weakness, taking a friend up on her offer of “company”. Mrs. Stearns, teaching the two boys how to make oatmeal cookies. And Victoria, seeing an ob-gyn for the first time and asking if her baby is okay.
Afterward, when she was calm again, after the doctor had left, she went into the air outside the Holt County Clinic next to the hospital, and the light in the street seemed sharp to her and hard-edged, definite, as if it were no longer merely a late fall afternoon in the hour before dusk, but instead as if it were the first moment of noon in the exact meridian of summer and she was standing precisely under the full illumination of the sun.
One of my favorite moments is when the brothers struggle to make dinner conversation with Victoria for the first time (they normally just read the paper). Not knowing how to talk to a teenage girl, they ask her about market shares for cattle. I found myself holding my breath, because at this moment Victoria could laugh at them or walk away, but instead she tries to understand what they’re talking about. It’s like these characters are dealing with alien species rather than other human beings.
They knew they were not out of the woods yet, but they had begun to allow themselves to believe that what they saw ahead was at least a faint track leading to a kind of promising clearing. They watched the girl and waited.
There is a scene where Tom’s sons are being harassed by some bullies, and I have to say I found that scene absolutely chilling. I think this is what makes Plainsong so good – you can label it as a small-town, feel-good book but it defies simple characterization. There is small town goodness here, but just as much darkness.
I also liked the way Haruf incorporates the land into the story. His writing is beautiful but minimal, and animals suffer and struggle in some of the same ways that people do. Some readers are bothered by Haruf’s way of writing dialogue (without quotation marks) but I loved it. I especially loved the way the McPheron brothers talk to each other. Some of their arguments had me laughing out loud.
I do think a few of the characters felt a little exaggerated, particularly the kid in Tom’s history class and his parents. And Tom’s friend Maggie is a bit too perfect, too much of a savior for the other characters.
This book is part of a trilogy, with Eventide and Benediction. Sadly, Haruf died recently, and his last book, Our Souls at Night, was just published posthumously. This was my first read from Haruf, and I look forward to reading more.