Plainsong (Review)

Labels: A Lighter Touch


Kent Haruf
320 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
December 2007

The title of this book is beautifully apt for a story set on the great plains: musically, plainsong is an unadorned melodic line. Haruf's novel, then, is a plainsong—in terms of his taut, straight-forward prose; his unadorned but compelling characters; and the austerity of his setting.

Plainsong is also a hymn of praise. And Haruf's story becomes a paean to the power of place and to the capacity of individuals to transcend loneliness and despair, coming together in community.

All is not well in pastoral America: Tom Guthrie struggles on his own to raise two boys as his wife descends into depression; his young sons, Ike and Bobby miss and worry about their mother; teenaged Victoria Robideaux is locked out of the house when her mother discovers she is pregnant; and two crusty bachelor brothers plod along in barren silence on their isolated ranch.

Hardly an auspicious beginning for what is ultimately a sweet story (ouch...Kent Haruf would just love that). But school teacher Maggie Smith, while not the central character, is the lynchpin that brings—and holds—these disparate, and desperate, characters together. In the end you fall in love with all of them as they begin their tentative steps toward love and trust.

The book moves slowly, and Haruf's writing has a grainy texture that lingers on tiny details as characters move from place to place. I admit I sometimes got impatient and wanted him to move at a faster pace, but... he doesn't. In the end, it doesn't matter, because he's so good.

Haruf wrote a 2004 sequel, Eventide. While I don't think it's quite as good (except for the cover—it's gorgeous!), I enjoyed picking up with the same characters.

See our Reading Guide for Plainsong.

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